Artists Commune: The art of creating collections of artists

“The pandemic reminded us how important it is to be near each other as humans,” says Logan Will, who co-founded The Reliquarium in Lincoln with his partner, Ivy Ross. For artist collectives like The Reliquarium, community has always been a core principle. Creativity and community go hand in hand, and a collective can give individual artists the supportive environment they need to realize their artistic dreams. “The only way I’ve found to get the mental freedom to create a thing is to work together,” says Rick Scianablo, founder of Studio Blue in Providence.

Photo of Ivy Ross by Adrian Feliciano and is used with permission. 

This past year has spurred reflection and adaptation for many artists and artist collectives. It’s no secret that artists, already underpaid for their work, have been hard hit by the pandemic. As the economy crashed, people spent less money on art. Many artists found relief from grant programs like RISCA’s Artist Relief Fund. “I was filling out grant proposals for artist assistance for 15 people in my office, one at a time,” says Scianablo.

Every artist I talked to expressed gratitude for their existing communities, which helped them survive the year. “Everyone was stuck,” says Scianablo. “We were lucky because we were stuck with each other.”

Ross concurs: “We were all quarantining together. We were able to hunker down and get into all these ideas.” For The Reliquarium, which traditionally generated income through large-scale set builds for concerts and events, the lockdown meant a complete shift in artistic focus. “We were in Costa Rica finishing up a massive stage made of bamboo,” says Will. “We got on a plane to come home and the borders closed.”

Luckily, Ross, Will and their cohort already had a monumental project on their hands: an immersive 25-room gaming facility for R1 Indoor Karting in Lincoln called TimeZone. TimeZone “really took over The Reliquarium,” says Will. “We were able to pull a lot of people in, I think 30 to 45 of our friends and other specialists, to really sink our teeth into this project all throughout the pandemic. We were very fortunate to be right in the middle of something that was local, and also this great opportunity to flex our creative muscles.”

The pandemic almost spelled financial ruin for Studio Blue, which houses 20 artists in their Summer Street space. “We were a few days away from opening up a new venue called The Fifth Dimension when coronavirus hit,” explains Scianablo. A series of frustrating accidents prevented Scianablo from signing the lease in time, inadvertently saving the organization. “We would’ve been on a five-year lease for $5,000 a month and we would’ve been dead,” he mused. “You realize the universe takes over a little.”

In spite of the difficulties this year has presented for collaboration, artists throughout the state have found different ways to create together. Jonesy Mann, director of the Live/Work program at AS220, described some of the work done by AS220 resident artists this past year. “Early in the pandemic, a bunch of people came together to make PPE. We had residents making face shields, residents sewing masks. In the summer, when the reckoning with racial justice was happening across the country and in Providence, we activated our print shop, and a lot of our residents made signs that were seen throughout the city in support of Black Lives Matter. That was a way that our community came together.”

Photo courtesy of Studio Blue

AS220’s Live/Work program rents out 47 residential artist studios. “Our mission is to nurture and create a forum for the arts in Rhode Island,” says Mann. “It’s really important for artists to have affordable places to live in this state, which is a really challenging thing with housing prices going up. The Live/Work Program is a way to address that.”

For Ross and Will, the hunt for space is what brought The Reliquarium to Rhode Island in the first place. “Logan and I met at school in Boston,” explains Ross. “We ended up moving to Rhode Island as a way to house more people and to be able to create art.” The Reliquarium started with a single space and six artists and has grown to encompass three spaces: Relic Works, their business, Relic Studios, a cooperative work space, and Relic Ranch, a small, sustainable farm.

The Reliquarium is a 24-hour operation, says Will: “The circadian rhythm for every artist is different. At any given time in the studio there are people working: welding, ceramics, casting, printing, we’ve got a music dungeon, glass blowing, painting, digital media production, culinary arts — it feels like an ant farm sometimes the way people have come in and added their specialized skill sets. There’s this constant flowing of opportunities to collaborate with each other in ways nobody would have initially expected.”

Every organization I spoke with defined “art” broadly. “We take a non-exclusive approach to that term,” says Mann. In evaluating Live/Work Applications, he says, AS220 considers “anybody who applies their creativity toward a passion of theirs in their life” to be an artist. That capacious definition allows the collectives and communities I spoke with to become as diverse and vibrant as possible.

Scianablo takes a similar approach. An artist, he told me, is “someone who’s trying to push the boundary of what reality is.” While Studio Blue welcomes many artists working in traditional media like painting, sculpture and music, they also work with artists using their creativity to do more than just entertain. “One of the guys we’re working with is developing a case that’s designed to keep organs colder for longer when they’re being transported,” he told me, and Scianablo himself has experimented with using sound frequencies for medical purposes.

Building an artist collective, for Scianablo, means “providing the freedom to have your environment the way you want.” Creating that freedom comes with challenges. “Twenty artists living in 10,000 square feet maybe seems crazy, but it’s crazier than it seems.”

Last month Studio Blue made a million dollar offer for the building they occupy, but lost it to a developer. “Our fate has always been on the edge of existence and annihilation,” says Scianablo. “We have to be comfortable there because that’s the only place we can be. It doesn’t seem like we’re destined to be comfortable and that’s okay, because it makes for good art and music. That’s where your energy comes from.”

In spite of this precariousness, Scianablo and his fellow artists continue to explore new vistas. I met Scianablo at The VR Zone at the Providence Place Mall. This new virtual reality gaming facility features walls chock-full of art by Studio Blue residents among a number of immersive video games. Scianablo seemed excited about the creative possibilities of virtual reality. “You’re in a virtual reality lab giving an interview about community spaces — this is the future of it.”

All of the artists I spoke with were enthusiastic about the future of creative collaboration in the state, and the new opportunities that are beginning to emerge. “We do need each other to survive as artists,” says Ross. “I’m excited to continue to grow as a community.” Logan compared the momentum of their cooperative to a dung beetle’s ball — growing as it moves forward. “It’s sacred,” he says. “Every day is a beautiful ball of shit.”

A Suite of Artists

AS220 recently released the “Murmurations Community Tarot Project,” a collaborative tarot deck created by Providence artists as a fundraiser for the non-profit community arts center. “I wanted to pull the community together,” said LUMUKU, an AS220 resident who organized the effort. “I hope it’s a fun way for people to reconnect or even become aware of contributors to the deck that they didn’t know before.” 

José Menéndez and Tati Gómez both contributed to the deck and collaborated on its branding, card backs, layout and packaging. “We hope people can see the diversity of visual artists connected with AS220,” they said. “It is an amazing collaborative effort to support our local arts organization. All this beautiful work is combined in a functional tarot card set that we hope a lot of people order.”

Amanda Soule, a local artist and contributor, said that she “hope(s) that this tarot deck helps people have introspective conversations with themselves while also hearing the voices of their community. I have found the tarot to be an immensely powerful tool for gaining awareness of my own hopes and fears, desires and aversions…I’m really excited to have the input of so many other artists involved in that dialogue, through their interpretations of the cards.” 

More than 80 artists participated. The deck can be purchased at as220.org/tarot, and artwork from the deck is available for viewing by appointment at the project space gallery. 

Stop. Look. Listen

If you’ve noticed some unusual street signs around Providence in recent months, they’re the work of a street artist known as Ghostbutter, who has put up wry, encouraging signs throughout the city. Camouflaged to look like yellow street signs, his work catches you by surprise with messages meant to bolster spirits during the pandemic. 

Davis Alianiello (Motif): What inspired you to do this project?

Ghostbutter: I was inspired to do this project because of two things: the pandemic and the death of my father. My father died this past January and ever since I have just been trying to put two and two together. The signs are a very public kind of Note to Self to try and get myself back on track. “So Lovin U,” “Don’t Lose Heart,” “Almost There,” are all things I’ve been telling myself. They’re like those self-affirming Post-It notes people sometimes put up around their homes, but in this case they’re street signs and very out in public. The pandemic obviously plays a huge part in this, too. I think it’s been a long slog and I’m trying to slyly give people a little encouragement. I think it was important for me personally to do it publicly because so much ease and general humanity has been stripped from our public spaces in the last year.

DA: What do you think the role of public art should be?

Ghostbutter: I think public art should surprise people to begin with. And then like all other art, I think, from there it should either disturb the comfortable or comfort the disturbed (David Foster Wallace is where I heard that first, but it’s likely attributable to other sources). In this case, I’m trying to create work that comforts the disturbed. Also it should wrestle with the contradiction of its own existence, and other contradictions. Most of the time public art doesn’t do this because it gets watered down by committee. That’s why guerilla public art gets me — it’s not agreed upon or approved. It’s just one person desperately putting something up on the street trying not to get caught. 

DA: In a way, your art seems intentionally inconspicuous, unlike a lot of street art. What do you hope a viewer’s experience of your art would be? 

Ghostbutter: Yes, with the signs, being inconspicuous is entirely the point of what I’m doing. I’m trying to camouflage myself, pretend as though I’m just something state issued. I like taking on that voice of the state because normally it’s simply the facts relayed in the most dispassionate way. Caution Speed Bump. I figured that if I could take on that voice and then say something utterly empathetic and human then I could surprise people in a decent enough way, kind of catch them a little off guard. Also personally I really respond to the contradiction of form and the content. That’s the kind of stuff that I stay up late thinking about.

DA: What’s your favorite of the signs?

Ghostbutter: Don’t Lose Heart. I’ve made that one a few times already and I think it stays truest to my original vision of the piece. Street signs are often telling you not to do something, so it seems really to fit in with the existing Street Sign Tone. Also it has three words and the first two are negative and the last one is positive, so it has a kind of contradiction at play just in the language. Like one of those haiku poems where in a three line poem, the third line is a complete repudiation of the first two lines. Also so far it’s the one I relate to most.

Taking it Outside in Style

PVD Cares Outside is the new public program from The Steel Yard and City of Providence Arts, Culture, and Tourism. At a meeting last year, Tim Ferland, director of public projects for The Steel Yard, said, “Maybe we should put together some kits to help restaurants and retail stores move their operations outside.” To date, the grant-funded project has produced 30 kits that will help businesses all over the city “take it outside” and stay safe during the pandemic. “The plan was to take this money and try to keep it as local as possible,” says Ferland, “to create something unique for the city.”

Each kit consists of tents, traffic barriers, string lights, electrical cords, cord covers, and posters. The Steel Yard was also able to use the grant to hire local artists to customize the kits. Troop recently installed their kit for outdoor dining, and you can expect to see more kits pop up around the city as the weather gets warmer. Businesses can apply for a kit through The Steel Yard’s website (thesteelyard.org).

Changing the Vibe: Kah Yangni’s art brings joy to the streets

Kah Yangni, photo credit: Asaad Miller for QTZ Fest

Kah Yangni’s art is vital in both senses of the word—lively, full of energy, and dazzling, and also essential and compelling. They are based in Philadelphia, but lived and worked for a decade in Providence, and they recently returned to create a piece for Dirt Palace’s Storefront Window Gallery. I had the pleasure of talking with Kah about public art, how they center and celebrate resilience in their work, and what they miss about Providence. 

Davis Alianiello (Motif): You returned to Providence this summer to do a project with Dirt Palace. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Kah Yangni: It was so great! They asked me to come back and do a project in their window a long time ago, maybe January of that year, and I knew I wanted to do a mural, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do it on. Then all of the craziness of that summer happened, and I was so glad that I hadn’t
settled on an idea yet, because it was cool to do something that could just respond to what was happening.

I lived in that neighborhood, and I passed that spot all the time, and I thought it would be cool to make something that people who lived there could see, and have their spirits lifted during literally the worst month of, definitely my adult life, and kind of everybody’s. It was horrible and
such a dark time and I was like, I can make something light, that feels good, and I’ll put it here, and it’ll be up for a month, and people will feel light.

I’ve also seen other people do cool stuff with that window, so I’ve always wanted to do something there, and when they were like, “You can do something,” I was like, “Oh my god, I’ll get to go see my friends!”

It was also a perfect moment to come home and be around people who I knew, and who I knew cared about me and who I cared about, because it was so intense that summer.

DA: So much of your work is public art: both your murals and illustrations you’ve done. I was wondering what you think the role of public art should be.

KY: My first experience of public art was being a part of Pronk!, which is so special and makes people proud to live in Providence, and there’s this magic moment where it just changes the vibe in a spot.

Then I began to get interested in murals around 2016, so I went away to a mural painting internship here in Philly and learned how to do it.

The art I make tends to be sort of small naturally, and I’ve been really interested in pushing myself to make really big stuff that will go in places and change the energy. A mural can bring people a certain joy and make them feel like life is not just boring and plain; it’s fun and higher than your day-to-day.

DA: Your work is so vibrant and alive, and really grabs the viewer’s attention. I used to live across from your mural at Lore and I remember it becoming a part of my everyday life.

KY: Oh yeah! That one. I was in and out of that area, and it’s fun but can also be like, “New England fussy.”

DA: It is.

KY: It is! Which is mostly cute, but sometimes, like, not as cute. But I have this really strong memory from 2013 of me and my friend going to The Coffee Exchange, and we ran into Pronk! like, busting down Wickenden Street, and I was like, “This is frickin’ awesome, like, this is the opposite
of New England fussy.” [With that piece] it was really cool to do something that’s really bright: not just that same light blue color of a bunch of the houses around there, but something more fun and alive.

DA: Are there things you miss about Providence?

KY: I miss walking into, like White Electric and seeing 10 people I know. I really like Philly, it’s super fun, but I think that because Providence is small, there’s more room to be weird and be freaky.

DA: What’s a recent project that you’re most excited about?

KY: So, there’s Trans Day of Remembrance, when people remember all the trans people who have died that year, but on the same day there’s also this thing called Trans Day of Resilience. So for the last two years I’ve been working with this non-profit Forward Together, which hires trans artists to make graphics that can be shared on that day about the resilience of trans people.

I was really proud of the one I made in 2020. My poster says “Trans People Exist in the Future,” and it got shared by people I really look up to in the gay world, like Indya Moore from “Pose,” and Alok Vaid-Menon, and Sara Ramirez from “Grey’s Anatomy,” and it was going everywhere. That was really, really dope.

DA: What was having that visibility like?

KY: It was awesome! Instagram has this thing where you can see who’s sharing your post, and people were sharing it in all these languages — people shared it out of Ghana, they were writing under it in Russian and Japanese, it was all over the place.

You know, like, I watch “Pose!” It really has defined for me what it is to be trans, and to be black and queer, and it really has influenced me. It has been really cool to make something that connects with people I really admire. I was like, “I’m out here, I’m serving my community, this is
awesome! I’m really doing what I set out to do.”

DA: There’s something in there that connects to what you were saying earlier about the mural work. Both the community aspect, and the way that when art is shared like that, and people encounter it organically, it maybe changes the trajectory of their day, or makes them feel a certain way.

KY: Yeah! I hadn’t made that exact connection but I like it.

I definitely have thought before about how being trans is so often associated with either being a weirdo or death. I think I liked the idea of a project that focused on resilience, because I was tired with having being trans associated with being sad. I actually think it’s really awesome to be
trans, and really awesome to be gay, and I want to make stuff that looks happy, and looks like my experience. It’s cool to be able to make art that feels more like a pep rally.

I have been thinking about what direction I want to go in, like, if I really want to change my focus to be public art in the sense of like, “I only do murals.” But I think that stuff like that, where they really put a lot of effort into making sure it spreads, and is seen by the entire queer community,
it feels really similar to how I feel when I do a mural.

DA: I was going to ask whether a certain genre was speaking to you lately, you work in so many!

KY: I think murals are really hard, but I really like them. I like the idea of changing a landscape. That’s what’s fun for me right now. That’s what I’m the most excited about. But I’m trying a couple new things that could be cool: I’m doing the title card lettering for a film, and I’m supposed to start a children’s book pretty soon, that should be really awesome. Murals are the thing I’ve been working on the longest, but I’m also trying other stuff right now.

DA: What’s the project that you’re most looking forward to?

KY: I’m going to do a big mural in downtown Philly in collaboration with this group home here that’s only for trans people. That’s coming out during Pride Month, that’s going to be awesome, I’m really excited, that’s going to be super dope. It’s a dream project.

For more information, go to kahyangni.com or follow Kah Yangni on Instagram @kahyangni

The Race: Wilbury’s latest offering was written for Zoom

“I’m a professional storyteller by trade, and I pretty much stopped working because of COVID,” says Mark Binder, the writer and playwright behind The Wilbury Group’s newest online offering, The Race. “Watching somebody tell a story in this [Zoom] setting is like bad TV a lot of the time.” Binder says it was the Boston-based Arlekin Players’ creative staging of State versus
Natasha Banina
that inspired him to write a show specifically for Zoom. “That was the first piece I saw that really used the zoomscape. I saw that it could be done and I thought, ‘Okay, I gotta play with this.’”

The result was The Race, playing as part of Wilbury’s streaming program through February 7. In the play, “Joseph Black and Joseph White are two men who are stuck in the same Zoom interview with the same interviewer, interviewing for the same job; the audience is the selection committee.” The two men are played by Jim O’Brien and Rodney Eric López, who switch roles from night to night, giving the show different resonances depending on when you attend. “We’ve consistently had people who’ve come back a second time to check out what’s different,” says Binder. “They’ve all said they enjoyed it as much the second time, which is very gratifying.”

“The dynamic changes every night,” says director Brien Lang. “It’s a testament to the depth of the script.”

The script speaks to urgent issues, says Binder: “There’s elements of race, there’s elements of sexuality, there’s elements of wealth inequality.” Binder continued to write during the rehearsal process, rewriting the script after every rehearsal. “It was lovely to work that way. I always hearkened back to what Kaufman and Hart and the Marx Brothers used to do. They would take the show to, like, Philadelphia and rewrite it every night.”

The interviewees’ unseen and mysterious interlocutor is played by Jennifer Mischley. “As an actor it’s awesome,” says Mischley. “The audience doesn’t know if I’m computer generated or an actual person, or a computer that’s learning as the interview goes.”

Unlike other Zoom shows, The Race involves audience interaction, using poll questions to keep the viewer engaged. “You get creative with the tools you have,” says Lang, who has directed several of Wilbury’s streaming offerings. “People have been getting really animated and engaged about the poll itself.”

“What you bring to the play changes how you see it,” adds Binder.

Nikita Zabinski wrote music for the show. “I’ve been wanting to work with Nikita for a while,” says Lang.

“The music is tense,” adds Mischley, “it immediately sets the tone.”

Wilbury is currently teaming up with WaterFire Arts Center to build a livestream studio. Their next offering will be an audioplay by Don Mays, God Talks to an Agnostic. While the group recognized the hunger theater artists have to return to the stage, Binder said he was “wondering if this form will persist: it allows people in different places to play with each other in a way that live theater can’t.”

Speaking Out

“If it’s a global issue, it’s also a local issue,” says Steven Pennell, coordinator of URI’s Urban Arts and Culture Program. Their newest exhibit is “Speaking Out — A Call To Action — The Art of Protest — Agents of Change in Rhode Island.” This exhibit, which features a number of local artists in various media, “deals with a variety of issues,” says Pennell. “There are works that deal with COVID, materialism, Black Lives Matter, immigration, anxiety and depression, environmental issues, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights … these are pieces from artists who deal with social justice issues and raise protest.” It’s on display at the URI Providence Campus at 80 Washington St through February 26.

“Arts call people to action, they educate and sometimes they incite, they call for people to be aware,” says Pennell. Putting together an art exhibit during a pandemic is difficult, and URI has made the exhibit available through a virtual tour on their website for those who are unable to visit the gallery in person. For those who are interested, Pennell brings small, masked and
socially distanced groups through the exhibit on Thursdays and Fridays at 3:30, 4:00, and 4:30pm. Some art is also visible from the street, and QR codes give outside viewers an introductory explanation of the material.

One particular challenge for Pennell was incorporating the performing arts. “Under other circumstances I might have performances in the theater or in the gallery,” says Pennell, “I do performing arts all the time, but with COVID I have not been able to.” Luckily, Pennell was able to team up with The Wilbury Group to feature a film of their performance OUR STORY // OUR
SONG, by local poet Christopher Johnson and musician Big Lux. That piece was originally performed outdoors in December at the WaterFire Arts Center’s Theater Under The Stars; the edited film version runs in the gallery 24/7.

Other notable pieces include a series of paintings by Monique Rolle-Johnson and protest photography by Don Mays.

“My hope is that the exhibit can inspire people to take action,” says Pennell, “that it will cause you to stop and think about what is going on around you, and that every issue is your issue, whoever you are. Hopefully it causes people to think about those issues and think about what they can do to make a difference.”

Constellations Under the Stars: Wilbury’s latest play takes the new WaterFire stage

Constellation rehearsal at WaterFire Arts Center

“Once you do a play like that, it’s basically in your bones, so it all just came back,” says Wilbury Theatre Group artistic director Josh Short of Nick Payne’s Constellations. Wilbury is teaming up with WaterFire Providence to remount and reimagine the play, originally produced in spring 2019, as a COVID-safe, drive-in experience.

Constellations is the fourth outdoor production Wilbury has created with WaterFire since the summer, but colder temperatures have created new challenges. For this production, audience members will stay in their cars, view the actors on an elevated stage, and tune in to the radio to hear them. Wilbury also partnered with Arte Latino New England to produce a simulcast Spanish-language performance for select shows, allowing audience members to tune into a separate FM station to hear the dialogue in Spanish. The production will incorporate live camera footage and pre-recorded projections to increase visibility.

Safety was the number one concern for Wilbury, and they partnered with Brown University School of Public Health to design the most secure experience for both actors and audience members. Initial rehearsals were virtual, as the show’s director, Aubrey Snowden, is based out of North Carolina. Now that rehearsals are live, Short explains, “Everyone gets tested
twice a week.” Constellations was chosen in part due to its amenability to what Short calls the “brave new world” of COVID-era theater: “No set, no props, just two people, and it was something that would lend itself to a staging that was less than realistic, which would help because the actors need to be 14 feet apart at all times or separated by a piece of plexiglass.”

Constellations centers on the relationship between quantum cosmologist Marianne (Rachel Dulude) and beekeeper Roland (Short). Their story is told through a series of fractured, interwoven vignettes, which apply the quantum theory of multiple universes to the equally perplexing complexity of romantic partnership. The cosmic resonances of the script make it the
perfect production to see under the stars, and the story, which deals with illness, distance and uncertainty, has new resonance in 2020. “It’s a play where a woman is sick, and she’s trying to figure out a way forward, and her partner is powerless in the face of it,” says Short. “I think it’s impossible to hear a story like that right now and not think of COVID and the millions of people who have lost someone they love.”

Wilbury has several other upcoming events and productions throughout the winter, including the Culture is Key: Capture the Block program; the premiere of a new audioplay, God Talks to an Agnostic by Don Mays; and the resumption of their online livestreaming program. “We’ve got a lot of stuff happening right now,” says Short.

Constellations will run from December 3 – 19 at the drive-in performance space at WaterFire Arts Center. Tickets are available at thewilburygroup.org

Russian Trolls: Workplace comedy-style podcast explores foreign meddling in US elections

“Americans are easy to troll, because we’re so dysfunctional,” says the writer and creator of the new narrative fiction podcast “Russian Trolls.” The self-proclaimed “useful idiot” has chosen to remain anonymous: “I’m a little worried that Vladimir Putin is onto me, and is planning to poison me.”

Presuming there are no agents of the Kremlin prowling around Rhode Island, “Russian Trolls” will release their first episode the week before the election. The show puts a dark twist on the classic workplace comedy, focusing on a group of down-and-out Muscovites who make their
living pretending to be Americans online. The events of the series are based on the real life actions of the now-infamous “troll farms,” whose goal, in the words of the series’ creator, is simply “to fuck with us — it’s psychological warfare.” He described the inside of a troll farm as something like a “comedy writer’s room of 20-somethings” who make good money picking fights online, organizing outlandish political stunts (one involved Pokemon Go) and generally degrading the (already extremely degraded) American political discourse.

In Episode 1, we meet Yelena, played by Ashley Risteen, who’s deciding whether to take a job as a troll. Risteen describes her character as “a kind but struggling human; she lives with her psychologically abusive babushka and she’s looking for a way out.” Yelena has ethical qualms about trolling Americans, but ultimately takes the job once she sees how ugly real
Americans are to one another online. “These days we see fewer and fewer grey areas,” says Risteen. “Yelena is in one and that’s what makes her so interesting.”

Yelena is recruited for the farm by her friend Lexi, played by Michael LoCicero (also a co-producer). LoCicero described his character as “a know-it-all, but also a bit of a buffoon, with no qualms about the impact [trolling] has.”

There’s one American working at the troll farm, a cynical ex-reality TV producer named Ken Kurwitz. Ken is the team’s “Yoda on how to be American.” He came to Russia to marry Xenia, a blunt young woman played by Darya Kravitz. Kravitz, who was born in Russia and raised in the US, served as the show’s consultant on all things Russian. She provided translations and coached fellow actors on their dialects.

“Economically, a lot has happened in the last 20 years that has been good for Russia,” said Kravitz, “but not unlike here, the 1% is controlling the population, and people are desperate. There are so many parallels between the Russian people and Americans.”

“Russian Trolls” draws out those parallels. The show digs into election interference, but that’s not what it’s truly about, according to the creator. “I’m not that interested in Russia’s influence on the American election. I mean, we interfere in their elections, too. I’m much more interested in what this says about us.”

The show is 10 episodes and will be available on all major streaming platforms. The cast also includes a number of local favorites, including Phoenyx Williams as Sergei, Clare Blackmer as Ludmilla, Nikita Zabinski as Mikhail (who also provides music), Jon Audette as Vlad, and Alexandra Cipolla as Nadya.

Will there be a Season 2? Maybe, says the creator, “If they interfere again.”

McManus Brothers Sound Off: The Block Island Sound draws the filmmaking duo home

“Everyone knows what Block Island feels like in the summer, but in the winter it’s like a Stephen King set, just a spooky place,” says Matthew McManus. “It’s cold, every house is boarded up, every tree is barren — it has this wonderful, eerie quality to it. We just fell in love with it.”

Matthew and his brother Kevin McManus are the directing duo behind The Block Island Sound, the indie horror film that premiered in August at Fantasia International Film Festival. The movie was a homecoming for the Warwick natives, who shot their debut feature, Funeral Kings (2012) in RI, and went on to garner an Emmy nomination for their writing on the hit Netflix series “American Vandal” in 2018.

The Block Island Sound focuses on a series of strange happenings on the titular island. First, a mass beaching of fish, which brings marine biologist Audry Lynch (Michaela McManus) back to her hometown. Once there, she finds her grizzled fisherman father (Neville Archibald) has been acting strange. After a sudden tragedy, Audry and her brother Harry (Chris Sheffield) must reckon with the mysterious force disturbing the island. The film blends a cosmic horror story with a taut family drama, and the sibling dynamic between Sheffield and McManus has real depth and believability.

The film also taps into cultural anxieties over climate change. Numerous mass animal die-offs are mentioned, and each of them, according to Kevin McManus, are sourced from real life events. “It’s funny how many people have emailed us with an article like, ‘All these fish died off, you guys predicted it.’ It’s like, ‘No, this happens every day,’ so hopefully this is a way of bringing attention to that. Two-thirds of wildlife has died out since the 1970s … it’s pretty fucking dark.”

Another uncannily relevant part of the movie is Dale, Harry’s conspiracy theorist pal who attempts to tie the island’s strange happenings together. “When we were writing him we thought we’d get dinged for this by critics, like ‘This guy doesn’t really exist,’” says Matthew. “Sure enough, just when we’re ready to put it out into the world, half the country are these crazy
conspiracy theorists. I guess it’s more prescient than we could have appreciated.”

The impetus for the film came from a college experience: “We were shooting a zombie movie, and we needed a place that would look abandoned and not cost a fortune. It was February on Block Island. I think as soon as we saw it we thought, ‘We need to do something bigger here, longer here, something real.’ It’s been in the back of our heads ever since.”

They got their chance in spring 2018. “We shot April into May, so it started ice cold and ended sweltering hot. We were like, ‘We only shot for 15 days, how did we get summer and winter and no spring?’ But that’s about right for Rhode Island.”

The McManus’ Block Island is beautiful in its barren bleakness — a washed out seascape beneath which lurks eldritch, Lovecraftian forces. The film is full of local color and insider details, and it’s clear the McManuses relished their homecoming. “My sister is one of the leads in it, my mom makes a cameo, my buddy Matt Giacheri is one of the producers — it felt like this great communion of all these people we’d worked with when we were kids. It was a special experience.”

One more McManus family member made it into The Block Island Sound, in an unexpected way. I remarked on the movie’s unnerving, ethereal soundscape, which I learned has a secret ingredient. Kevin explains: “The ‘monster sound’ you hear was a really hard one to pin down. We had it written in some kind of gibberish in the script, and everyone kept asking us,
‘So what is the sound going to sound like?’… Nothing was quite working, and eventually, right after we were done shooting the film, that September I had a daughter, so we took a break from the film for a minute, and when she was about seven months old, she started cooing in this high pitched guttural way, in short little bursts, really high pitched, and if I slowed it down 15%, it had this almost crocodilian growl to it. Suddenly, you get this really organic creepy otherworldly kind of sound that’s really hard to put your finger on, and of course it’s just a little baby. It was exciting to give my daughter her debut as a monster.”

The McManus brothers hope that the film will appear at other festivals in the near future. It will be available to the public sometime in 2021. “It was fun being able to make another film in Rhode Island,” said Matthew. “Something just draws us back to shooting there.”

Michaela McManus, Matthew McManus, Kevin McManus, Chris Sheffield.
Photo cred: Erin Douglass

To see the film’s trailer, go to youtu.be/2P30Ynj0gxA