The Last Waltz: Counter-Productions Theatre Company Says Farewell After Twelve Seasons

 

thumbnail_Logo 1“Our goal from the beginning has been to create a space for performing artists to create art that they truly care for and to tell stories about who we all are. We never intended to have a specific mission other than that.”

CPTC’s Artistic Director, Ted Clement

As theater companies in Rhode Island come and go, some become institutions while others fade from memory after a season or two. Economics can be a factor, but often, a company lives a finite life having fulfilled its mission, and decides to go out on top. The spaces these companies use inevitably get filled by newer outfits, especially in the scarce real estate of downtown Providence. OUT LOUD now performs where Newgate Theater once reigned on Mathewson Street and the 95 Empire Street black box, once home to Perishable Theatre (and still Head Trick Theatre’s stomping grounds) is about to see the final two productions of Ted Clement’s Counter-Productions Theatre Company (CPTC). After 12 years of telling stories, CPTC has reached a logical end and Ted Clement (along with Christine Fox, his wife and CPTC executive director) are finally saying goodbye.

“We’ve come to a place where we believe we’ve accomplished everything we had hoped for,” says Clement. “Given mine and Christine’s growing careers at CCRI, we decided that we should turn all of our focus toward our students and give space for other independent companies.” Clement’s judicious use of CCRI students and staff in his work has provided one of the state’s only direct throughlines from the educational platform to the semi-professional, independent theaters of the state. Resident artist Audrey Crawley, who received her A.F.A at CCRI, says, “I wouldn’t be heading down the artistic path that I am today if it weren’t for CPTC. And while it’s been the honor of my young life to have worked with everyone that I have there, my life would be so different today if I hadn’t been plucked out of my freshman-acting-one-class obscurity by Ted Clement. He’s placed faith in me when I did not have faith in myself. He has selflessly provided an entire generation of artists with training, guidance, advice, wisdom, kindness, honesty, generosity and friendship. And CPTC was definitely the ultimate incubator, a safe space that fostered creativity and professionalism.”

The penultimate CPCTC production opens May 10, We Made The U.S.: An Exploration of the Creation of America. Created by resident artist Ron Lewis, the devised piece blends theater, dance and historical storytelling to explore our heritage and the unknowable struggles of ancestors who built this country. Lewis, like all of his fellow artists saying goodbye to CPTC, has nothing but fond memories of his work there. “Counter-Productions has left an indelible mark in the Providence theater community. Like a gardener scattering seeds, so many local theater artists have been met by the diligence and committed work of CPTC … in both performance and tech … and so much genius has been planted in the soul of theater here. The company has been a growing space and a launching pad, a training in how to make good, dynamic theater. Its presence will be greatly missed, but its effect and work will touch the next generation of Rhode Island theater artists and beyond.”

CPTC’s origins trace back to 2007, initially forming at The Arsenal Center in Watertown, Massachusetts. The group spent four seasons as a resident company at The Factory Theatre on Tremont Street in Boston, then, in 2012, they moved their efforts to Rhode Island, staging plays at The Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket and Artists’ Exchange in Cranston, before eventually settling in for six years as residents at AS220’s 95 Empire.

CPTC co-founder Allie Gillaspie Williams served as production manager from 2007 to 2011 and returns to the fold as a designer for the final production, Gideon’s Knot, which runs May 17 – 26. Williams tells the story of CPTC’s founding: “Ted and I went to undergrad together for a brief time at Salem State. We just barely overlapped. He starred in The Cherry Orchard, which was the first show I worked on during the fall of my freshman year and I believe, his last. Life happened. I graduated in 2005 but stayed in the North Shore area. Around 2006, Ted came back to direct The Who’s Tommy for the Salem State Student Theatre Ensemble’s summer show. I heard through a Facebook post or something similar that they needed a costume designer. I had always loved The Who and this music, so I volunteered — why the hell not — who doesn’t want to costume 30+ people for multiple scenes without any real budget or time? I was clearly more ambitious than I realized. It’s definitely cliché, but Tommy changed the lives of everyone involved, at least a little. I met my husband working on that show, that’s kind of a big deal … and that show was the start of CPTC.

“Still high off the thrill of making Tommy, a core group would go on to do what has become increasingly easier to do, but seemed far more daunting in 2007. “Four of us initially pooled our minimal resources (Ted, me, Alison Meirowitz and Devon Scalisi), found a theater to rent, held a yard sale (or two, I forget), and made a theater company. I was 24 years old when we opened Julius Caesar. It kind of still blows my mind … I designed some basic scenery that we built in a backyard in Salem with borrowed tools, maxed out a credit card to buy lumber, broke up with my boyfriend at the time who was also working on the show and with whom I was living, slept on floors and made a play. I think some of our friends’ best acting moments ever happened during that run. It was a whirlwind. And none of us wanted it to stop.

“We found a more affordable rental space, established a board of directors, and did 10 more shows between Boston and Rhode Island from 2007 and 2011.  In that time, Steve (CPTC resident artist Steven Ishmael Williams) and I started dating, I made the decision to go to grad school and we got married.  Four years was a lifetime when I was in my 20s.  In those four years, like any company, especially one run by friends, we had ups and downs. There were fights and frustration, but also a lot of love. We got to produce the plays that meant the most to us. I put Hair on stage and cried every night in a thrilled/overwhelmed way because I couldn’t believe that I got to be a part of my favorite musical of all time.

“The season after Hair, we were all growing up and this thing we loved so much started feeling harder. I also decided it was time for me to go to grad school and the programs I was looking for aren’t found in New England. We decided that I would step down as production manager for CPTC and that Ted was going to start doing a lot more work in Rhode Island while the others remained in Boston. Last year, I returned to CPTC and designed Waiting for Godot. And as bittersweet as it is, I’m really glad that I get to take my journey full circle, and design CPTC’s last show.”

Godot was directed by another resident artist, Valerie Remillard, who will appear onstage in Gideon’s Knot. Remillard also has a long history of theater with Clement. “Ted and I started out together working in church basement theater almost 30 years ago … almost …. We had no training and no mature understanding of the theater arts in those days, but we had great passion for performing and for learning as much as we could. We both left our respective Blackstone Valley homes to get degrees in theater and we both trained in New York before finding our way back to our Rhode Island roots. It’s been a truly special experience being able to work together on great plays and produce good work in our home state with the full knowledge of where and how Ted and I both started. CPTC might be ending, but Ted and I will still be around and probably find more projects to work on together in the future. We’re all better artists for having shared our production time together.”

Counter-Productions’ effect on those who have worked with the company is palpable. Geoff Latham, who appeared in Godot as well as several other notable CPTC productions says, “Counter-Productions was my introduction to performing in the Providence theater community. Ted believed in me and gave me the most challenging roles I have ever performed. The works he championed moved Rhode Island theater to a stronger commitment to hearing marginalized voices and supporting new artists. CPTC was a nest in the best way: nurturing and launching us when we were ready to fly.”

Steven Ishmael Williams talks about returning to the CPTC fold after the company’s move to Rhode Island. “It still felt like a family even after all those years apart. My first show back as designer was Waiting for Godot, but nothing would prepare me for Isabella (authored by David J Valentin, another resident artist, who declares that CPTC reignited his love for theater). That was the show where I was emotionally invested in the story, the cast and the production. I received my first nomination for lighting design on that show and I have CPTC to thank for that opportunity. It is hard to see this, Gideons Knot as the last show, but we still have our family, and that will continue to show even after the curtain closes.”

Christine Fox, long-suffering executive director, also has nothing but praise for all that CPTC has achieved. “Being a part of CPTC over the past eight years has been a great joy, professionally and personally. I am fortunate to have worked with so many incredibly talented and passionate artists. We’ve produced great work and forged lifelong friendships. It’s bittersweet to bring it to a close; for Ted and me, it’s time, as we’re both increasingly busy at CCRI, but it’s sad to let go of something we enjoy so much. I am looking forward to seeing what our CPTC family does next as they move on.”

And what of Clement, whose vision has propelled Counter-Productions into one of the state’s premier Independent companies. What does he take away from all this?

“Naturally our belief and ideals as citizen artists have been an important part of the work, but the work itself, the telling of stories as a way to view human experience, that has been our primary focus. We set out from the start, to have a lively creative conversation between the playwrights, actors, directors, managers, and designers and the audience who chose to join us. I hope we’ve achieved that goal well. The community of friendship that we’ve experienced over the last 12 seasons is amazing. The amount of effort and dedication to the work by all of these creative artists, and the resulting productions, have been unbelievably fulfilling and I wouldn’t trade a single second of it. I honestly feel blessed to have been able share this journey with all of these remarkable collaborators.”

Counter-Productions Theatre Company presents its two final shows this month. We Made The U.S.:
an exploration of the creation of America, created and performed by Ronald Kevin Lewis, has four showings, May 10 at 7pm and 8:30pm and May 11 at 7pm and 8:30pm. 

Then, Gidion’s Knot, by Johnna Adams, Directed by Kira Hawkridge, runs May 17 – 26. Both productions take place at AS220’s Black Box Theatre, 95 Empire Street, PVD. For more details, visit cptcri.com

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