RI Theater: 2019 and Beyond

UpStageIt’s difficult to predict what the future of theater will be — or if there will be a future for anything, really — and trying to predict what theater will be like in Rhode Island in five, 10 or 100 years from now is a difficult challenge.

We’ve always had a very unique theater community here, and that’s not a statement of exceptionalism. Rhode Island is … odd in ways both quirky and frustrating. It might be because of how much we cram into such a small state — beaches, suburbs, rural areas, multiple colleges, furniture celebrities, the word “bubblers,” Mineral Spring Avenue — but whatever the reason, our theater scene has expanded in leaps and bounds over the past few years, and like any other boom, it’s understandable to worry that we may be heading for an eventual pop.

Looking toward what’s to come, it seems like the changes RI needs to make to keep its vital theater scene active are no different than the changes theater everywhere has to make or risk falling victim to the temptations of isolation. People opting to stay in and stream something on the new Apple channel (Are we calling them channels or…?) rather than having a communal theatrical experience, because, ugh, people are exhausting, right? And, like, that’s probably not going to change anytime soon.

One way to ensure the survival of local theater is to have a clear point of view. For a while, it seemed as though people were just starting theater companies to play their bucket list roles (author of this article raises his hand sheepishly), but now we’re starting to see groups forming like the WomensWork Theatre Collaborative. This group has a clear point of view and an underrepresented audience it’s trying to reach. It also gives artists who reflect those audiences and find themselves with limited creative outlets a place to speak and perform.

Many local theatermakers figured out a long time ago that it’s no longer enough to have one or two “events” in their season while they fill the rest with unwarranted revivals and liberal echo-chambers designed to attract rich people who want to take in an evening of theater before and after cocktails. These days, every production has to be an event. Some people might complain about that, but isn’t that how it always should have been?

Earlier this year, I spoke to Trinity’s artistic director, Curt Columbus, about how the theater’s season now seems entirely made up of what the movie industry calls “tentpoles,” which is really just another name for events.

If you look at Trinity’s season over the last few years, they’ve not only seemed to embrace the idea of bigger and bolder theater, but they’ve also taken huge steps toward creating a diverse roster of shows with playwrights and directors from all different backgrounds, who are willing to take old stalwarts like The Glass Menagerie and Othello and turn them on their heads.

So often in theater we find ourselves arguing about whether we should abandon shows that are overdone or dive deeper into them to see why they’ve hung around for so long. Trinity seems to be adopting the latter approach, and I’m glad they have. While any theater that tries this is bound to misfire every now and again, when they hit — like their production of The Grapes of Wrath a few years back — they hit big. It’s those risks that we need to see more of in the future. Musicals about Beowulf? Bring ‘em on. An underwater production of The Seagull? Why not? Those of us who go to the theater no matter what may sometimes balk at what seem like gimmicks, but the only difference between a gimmick and a concept is execution, and besides — gimmicks work. They get people into the theater who might not otherwise go, and if they’re moved by what they see, they become theater people.

That’s the hope anyway, but if the future is anything like the present, hope may be all we have.

I remember seeing my first show at Out Loud Theatre in their space at the Mathewson Street Church, and thinking: This is an event. Kira Hawkridge and her troop of actors understand the value of bells and whistles — and when to employ them — but they also know when to pull back and let the storyteller be the magnet that pulls an audience in.  Never underestimate what you can do with less. This is a lesson every theater artist needs to learn, because even when the future was at its brightest, it’s never been a bad idea to figure out how much you can take away from a story without losing the thread while still creating something visceral and evocative. Out Loud has been doing it a for a few years now, and I imagine they’re going to keep doing it for years to come.

If I had my way, every city and town in Rhode Island would have a theater in it. Now, at this point, most do, but we’re not quite there yet. Nevertheless, there are theaters who exist in a place, and then there are theaters of that place. Institutions that truly understand what it means to represent and serve a community. The obvious examples are the community theaters that have been working tirelessly for decades to bring the arts right to people’s doorsteps in accessible and approachable ways. So often, we discount these theaters, but in many ways, they’re the ones who do the most when it comes to creating lifelong audiences — organizations like the Community Players in Pawtucket, the Players at the Barker Playhouse, Swamp Meadow, Little Theater of Fall River, TRIST, Bristol Theatre Company, and RISE to name just a few. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve noticed the work they do getting more and more interesting as they adapt to a saturated market. They’re developing clear points of view and picking plays that are challenging while still appealing to their respective communities. Keep an eye on them as time unfolds. I don’t think it will be long before the line that separates these theaters from bigger ones with more resources becomes blurry.

While we’re on the subject of having a point of view, I think I should mention that having a certain style and set of opinions is going to become more essential than having a mission statement. The Contemporary Theatre in Wakefield is probably one of the most underrated gems in the state of Rhode Island — and what’s more, one of the most financially stable gems, theater or otherwise — and as they grow, they’re developing a clear brand that offers them enough room to grow in a lot of interesting directions. If you’re like me, you’re probably already sick of the word “brand,” but it’s not going anywhere, and theaters would do well to take a cue from CTC and start working on their own brands — and that goes way beyond marketing. It’s about looking at the work you produce and not just asking who you’re making it for, but why? If that sounds like I’m saying you need to justify why you exist — you’re right.

If you’re reading this, you probably believe — like I do — that the arts are vital, but I doubt there’s going to be a day when we don’t have to fight to exist, so we’d better be ready for that fight when it comes. We’d better be ready to explain what we’re doing here — and why.

There are reasons to be excited about theater in Rhode Island. Aside from the groups I’ve already mentioned, there’s still more to take in and experience.

Burbage Theater Company gets better every year with seasons that walk the line between crowd-pleasing and wonderfully uncommon. Their recent production of Shakespeare in Love is among the best of anything Rhode Island has to offer.

Head Trick Theatre is a great example of a group that’s offering something new and unique to the downtown arts scene. A recent production of Watch on the Rhine was one of the most sophisticated and intimate productions I’ve seen all year. They’ve become the go-to theater for excavating lost theatrical treasures and making them shine.

The Academy Players have just opened a glorious new space with a production of Newsies that proves the next generation of talent in Rhode Island is not only promising, it is ferocious. There’s an army of performers just waiting to emerge, and luckily for us, Academy is giving artists of all ages a training ground to do it.

Mixed Magic Theatre continues to be a benchmark of creating theater and music in Rhode Island that should be spoken of in the same breath as Trinity for its resilience and commitment to the arts. Want to know how to make sure you’re still around in 10 years? It might just take whatever magic they’ve been cultivating in Pawtucket all these years — demonstrating the vitality of theater within a given community.

We’ve got the Wilbury Theatre Group’s innovative and invigorating work in Providence that comes with Providence’s own Fringe Festival. Warwick can now lay claim to The Gamm Theatre — where they’ve showed no signs of watering down their work, and instead produce firecracker productions like Gloria.

There are Improv Festivals, Broadway-style musicals at Theatre by the Sea, the juggernaut PVD Fest, college productions at schools like PC and URI that could rival the best of the best anywhere in the country, and every once in a while Wicked strolls through PPAC, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that.

All this is to say that if we keep doing what we’re doing, that’s still plenty to be proud of, but if things get tougher — and they will — we’ll need to figure out how to cast a brighter spotlight on all the things that make theater in Rhode Island not just neat, but necessary.

We live in a state where people like to complain. They like to talk negatively about what gets made here, and that, naturally, leads to lots of stuff being imported — including talent. And at the risk of sounding provincial, we need to start championing our artists and our art. We need to start recognizing that what we create here is unique, and its uniqueness is what makes it necessary.

If we do that, someone might just ask me to write another article like this in twenty years.

Here’s hoping.


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