2nd Story, Take a Bow

2ndstoryThere are better people than me who could be writing this.

I acted in far fewer shows at 2nd Story Theatre than a lot of actors in this area, and directed only two. In its illustrious history, I was a participant for only a decade. The first show I acted in there was in the summer 2008 — although it speaks to what kind of opportunities the theater presented to local talent that somebody could go from sitting in the audience to directing a production in such a short time.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to write some in-depth piece on the theater as an artist without it being one of those indulgent pieces that hops from “And then I did this — and then that” and nobody wants to read one of those — myself included.

So when Motif asked me to write something, I quickly came to the conclusion that the only way to write about 2nd Story, or really any theater, was to write about it as an audience member. As one of those people sitting in the seats who knows nothing about the backstage drama or institutional changes that exist at every theater. While I’m sure whole books could be written about the history of an organization that existed for as long as 2nd Story did, I have only an article, so I’ll keep it as brief as I can, and talk about what I saw from my seat in the audience (and it was always a great seat).

Unfortunately, I can only go back as far as the building in Warren, although I’m not unaware of everything that came before it. What Pat Hegnauer and Ed Shea created in the state is now the stuff of legend, and Pat, in particular, should have received piles of accolades while she was alive for what she achieved as a woman in the Rhode Island theater community — one that still suffers from a lack of female leadership. I don’t know if the people who choose the Pell Awards are reading this, but not recognizing her while she was alive has to be one of their biggest missteps.

When 2nd Story was brought back to life in Warren, it took off by immediately establishing itself as irreverent with a fun approach to theater and theater-going. Short Attention Span theater arrived just as we as a culture were starting to figure out just how short attention spans were really getting.  I remember first hearing about it as a college student.

“There’s a theater that lets you eat popcorn while you watch the show.”

My ears perked up. I had to check this place out.

The theater wouldn’t seem that far outside of Providence to anyone not from Providence, but a Rhode Islander might find the drive to Warren a little out-of-the-way.

“What kind of theater are they doing out here?” I thought.

This was before Warren became the blossoming arts and culinary hotspot it is today, and something I would argue 2nd Story is almost solely responsible for — another long-overdue bit of appreciation.

Parking was easy to find.

The building was charming.

You immediately felt at home and comfortable when you walked in.

At that point, I had just started making the trek to New York to see Broadway and off-Broadway shows, and I remember thinking that 2nd Story borrowed a lot from the off-Broadway model while dispensing with the cold “edge” that sometimes accompanied more intimate theaters. There wasn’t yet air-conditioning or fancy sets or even an elevator. The seating was strictly directors’ chairs with the names of benefactors on them. The ushers were — and still are — some of the friendliest front of house people I’ve ever encountered, and I was surprised to find out some of there were high-ranking members of the staff who thought nothing of treating an 18-year-old kid as though he were one of the theater’s biggest donors. When it comes to front house, 2nd Story was the gold standard.

Now the fun part—

We get to talk about the shows.

It’s clichéd to say there are too many amazing productions and performances to mention, but that’s the honest truth. Still, there are some that simply have to be evoked.

Let’s start with Bob Colonna in Death of a Salesman. You could arguably start with Bob Colonna in just about anything, but even though I may not be an expert on Willy Loman, I’ve seen seven different actors play him onstage and on film, and I will make the case that Bob Colonna was the best I’ve ever seen. He followed it up with a performance as Joe Keller in All My Sons that was equally earth-shaking.

Also in that production was Lynne Collinson as his wife, Kate. If the Rhode Island theater community has a collective matriarch, I think many people would feel safe saying that it’s Lynne.  Her kindness and compassion was almost totally absent as Kate, so much so that when I saw her working the box office at the next show, I was almost too afraid to tell her how much I liked her performance. I couldn’t get over how this lovely woman turned in such a fiery and fierce portrayal.  Little did I know at the time that she was the beating heart of that organization, serving as a cheerleader and champion not just of that theater and all who stepped into it, but other small organizations in the area as well, and she still is to this day.

I still use that production as an example of a show done with few resources that soared because of its commitment to acting and storytelling.

All My Sons was the show that had me grabbing friends on the street saying, “Have you been to 2nd Story? You need to go 2nd Story.”

Over the next few years, I’d dream about becoming an actor there, but in the meantime, I took my place in the audience and watched as stellar theater was made over and over again.

There were shows like Tartuffe, where John Michael Richardson gave one of the funniest performances I’ve ever seen — thrashing on a shag carpet like a glorious madman. The second funniest performance I’ve ever seen also happened at 2nd Story — Dillon Medina in A Flea in Her Ear, the first of many runaway productions that sold so well it became legend.

Legendary would also be the word to describe Joanne Fayan in Auntie Mame. Joanne was the definition of a star in that role, and the production managed to create an event using only two criss-crossing red carpets and a performance from then child-actor Evan Kinnane so good I sat there wondering if he was some kind of living magic trick. The boy made a martini onstage with the ease of Tom Cruise in Cocktail. It was instantly iconic.

There was Erin Olson in The Miracle Worker in a role I’d always seen done as a kind of throwaway, turned into something touching and unforgettable. Tim White in Desire Under the Elms, a performance and a play that only the bravest of theaters would tackle. Aaron Morris in Of Mice and Men giving a beating heart to a character who so often is done as a caricature. Rae Mancini and Kyle Maddock in A Month in the Country redefining chemistry in a play that had no business being that sexy. Christin L. Goff in The Heiress establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Lara Hakeem in The Marriage of Bette and Boo, breaking your heart into a million pieces then making you laugh 10 seconds later. Eric Behr and Vince Petronio in Inherit the Wind in one of 2nd Story’s first productions at the Bristol Courthouse — proof that searing theater can be done just about anywhere.

Once I started acting there, I would still marvel at the shows I was seeing. Being friendly with the actors didn’t do anything to deter my admiration for the people I was seeing onstage. Jeff Church in Lobby Hero, Valerie Westgate in Speech & Debate, Ara Bohigian in Take Me Out, William Oakes in Prelude to a Kiss (and just about anything else — the man is a gift), Andrew Iacovelli in Amadeus, Sharon Carpentier and Ben Church in The Goat (2nd Story did The Goat, a play even I’m terrified to do, and those who know me will understand what a compliment that is), Gabby Sherba in School for Wives, Amy Thompson and Joan Dillenback in The Miracle Worker, Rachel Morris in The Underpants, Juli Parker in Auntie Mame, Carol Schlink in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Emily Lewis in Frankie and Johnnie, Will Valles in Kimberly Akimbo, Jonathan Jacobs in To Kill a Mockingbird (no words; he didn’t need them), Wayne Kneeland in Fuddy Meers, Gloria Crist in Master Class, Gayle Hanrahan in Short Attention Span Theater, Liz Hallenbeck in The Foreigner, Margaret Melozzi in Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Ashley Hunter Kenner in Catholic School Girls, Tom Roberts and Joan Batting in An Inspector Calls, Sandra Laub in Golda’s Balcony, Laura Sorenson in Comic Potential, every single person in August: Osage County, and Paula Faber in Becky Shaw, a performance so good they should have filmed it and taught it in acting schools.

There were the people behind the scenes, who even as an observer, were visible as being the cogs and wheels that made the place turn — people like Lynne and Paula, Peggy Becker, Jon Connery, Michael Abbruzzi, Charles Lafond and Ryan Maxwell. Ron Cesario, whose costumes were so good they got entrance applause. Trevor Elliott, whose sets were the perfect combination of flawless and functional. Richard Dionne, who snapped so many good photos I’m still holding out hope for an exhibit. And of course, Max Ponticelli, who did everything but warm up your car for you in the winter — and he probably did do that a few times, if we’re being honest.

These are the people who arrive in my mind when I think of 2nd Story Theater. All of them were local artists who demonstrated that you don’t need to go to New York City and bring back Broadway actors to create work that’s meaningful and satisfying. The theater itself was proof that great art can be found anywhere from a courtroom in Bristol to a storeroom over a restaurant in Newport to a 100-year-old building in Warren where actors would paint sets, wait tables at the restaurant downstairs, then perform in a 10-minute play by Durang all in one day.

It’s a testament to what can be done through sheer determination and the urge all of us feel to tell a good story.

If you went to 2nd Story, you wouldn’t find any pictures on the walls of past shows or memorable moments. It was something that always made me a little sad, but I understood the meaning behind it. There was a firm belief that theater should be of and for the moment. There was no living on sentiment or resting on past laurels. If you wanted to exist, you had to create and keep creating, and if you stumbled, you got back on your feet and tried a little harder the next time. You had to make events — not just good theater. The people buying the tickets had to feel like they were there for something special. It’s a tall order, but one all theaters should set for themselves.

The moment for 2nd Story may now be coming to a close, but I know I’m just one audience member among many, many others who will never forget what it brought into my life. The theater was kept going primarily by the people who wanted to see it thrive and survive because they felt it spoke to them in unique and special way. It made them feel welcome. It got them to laugh. It let them eat popcorn.

I can’t think of a better legacy than that.

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