FringePVD 2021: An opinionated list

FringePVD 2021, the annual festival of off-off-off-Broadway unjuried theater performances, running now through July 31, adopts a hybrid model with both live outdoor and online virtual performances. Coordinated by the Wilbury Group, all five of the live performance venues are in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence: Farm Fresh, ISCO, Nicholson File Art Studios, The Steel Yard and the WaterFire Arts Center. There are 23 live shows and 20 online shows, usually each performed more than once. Most shows have a ticket price of $5-$15, some are pay-what-you-can, and an all-access festival pass costs $95. I went through the list and chose a highly opinionated selection, which in the nature of Fringe is almost totally uninformed because I’ve seen only one of these shows before, emphasizing artists with local connections.

Live outdoor

Family Fringe, a totally free three-hour live event for all ages, will be at the WaterFire Arts Center, Sun, Jul 25, 3-6pm, featuring performances by Moonshadow Puppet Theatre, PVD World Music, Manton Avenue Project, and Woonasquatucket River rangers. No advance tickets are required for Family Fringe.

katxup, mantxup, batukada (at the WaterFire Arts Center Drive-In Stage: Sat, Jul 24, 5:30 pm) examines the history of the Cape Verdean experience in the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence, along with Cape Verdean music from the 1800s to the present. From Sylvia Ann Soares along with a number of musicians and storytellers.

Write Rhode Island: Short Stories​ (at the WaterFire Arts Center Drive-In Stage: Sat, Jul 24, 4:00 pm) showcases original stories written and performed by talented young writers. From Write Rhode Island (WRI), a creative writing partnership by Goat Hill and School One.

Chicago: A Two-Woman Extravaganza (at the WaterFire Arts Center Loading Dock Stage: Thu, Jul 22, 7 pm; Wed, Jul 28, 7 pm; Thu, Jul 29, 7 pm; ​Fri, Jul 30, 8:30 pm) is a very small re-interpretation of the hit Broadway musical Chicago, fueled by “the tragic combination of liquor and jazz which led to the creation of this show.” From 2Woman Productions, a collaboration between Alex Brassard and Sara Slusarski, whose previous productions have included similar takes on Wicked and Grease.

Booby Trap! (at The Steel Yard: Sat, Jul 24, 7 pm; Thu, Jul 29, 8:30 pm; Fri, Jul 30, 8:30 pm; Sat, Jul 31, 5:30 pm) is a cabaret where two sisters play a ritualized game with tennis balls to resolve a time paradox. From Dugway Proving Ground, a Providence-based collaboration by John Bender, Adam Kotin, Lily Mathews, and Kate Teichman, whose Pretty Bird premiered at a prior FringePVD.

HAMSTEAK; Alive and in Person! (at the BackLot Wilbury Stage: Tue, Jul 20, 7 pm; Fri, Jul 23, 7 pm; Sat, Jul 24, 8:30 pm; Tue, Jul 27, 8:30 pm; Wed, Jul 28, 7 pm) is a mock performance by “87-year-old country music legend Betty ‘Hamsteak’ Funkis on her ‘Come See Me Before I’m in the Ground’ tour, with her trademark wit, her one note range.” From Aaron Blanck and Brian Kozak who are well known in the RI theater scene from their work with Wilbury Group and Burbage Theater Company.

Zahak & Zeus (at WaterFire Drive-In Stage: Wed, 7/28, 8:30pm; Thu, 7/29, 10pm) is a modern interpretation inspired by Persian mythology from about 1,800 years ago, now involving “Uber rides in a flaming chariot and the questionable advice of a devious new demi-god named Siri.” From Baha Sadr and the Rhode Island Ukulele Armada.

Come Home Soon (at Farm Fresh: Fri, Jul 23, 8:30 pm; Wed, Jul 28, 8:30 pm; Thu, Jul 29, 8:30 pm) is either “a human show about dogs” or “a dog show about humans” but is not sure which, and probably does not involve a character named Sheba. From the Providence-based team of Anna Basile, Madison Weinhoffer and Pablo Colacce Sosa.

i love you. i hate you. shut up & tell me everything: my trials, tribulations, & total lack of understanding about Borderline Personality Disorder (a semi-sorta-sometimes sequel) (at Nicholson File Art Studios Courtyard: Wed, Jul 21, 8:30 pm; ​Thu, Jul 22, 8:30 pm) is, if there is still time for the performance after reading the title, “a raw honest autobiographical exploration of what it means to be human from inside the fractured mind of an alcoholic who has the audacity to write another play about his life.” From Teddy Lytle as writer and performer and Davis Alianello as director, the former a founding member of Spectrum Theater Ensemble and the latter a Wilbury Group veteran and regular Motif writer.

reptiles of the mind (walking tour starting from the WaterFire Arts Center River Stage: Fri, Jul 23, 8:30 pm; Sat, Jul 24, 8:30 pm; ​Fri, Jul 30 at 8:30 pm) is a 20-minute audio play intended to be listened to while walking along the Providence River, using a mobile device with earphones. From Davis Alianiello, a regular Motif writer.

Live Music & Comedy (at The Steel Yard: Fri, Jul 23, 7pm; at the Waterfire Arts Center Loading Dock Stage: Sat, Jul 31 7pm) is a curated performance of music, singing, and comedy. From Cas Inez and Spocka Summa who co-own Public Shop and Gallery in Providence.

Sleep Mode live performance​ (at The Steel Yard: Thu, Jul 22, 8:30 pm; Sat, Jul 24, 8:30 pm) from a 3-piece alternative rock band out of Providence.


Trainwreck (Sun, Jul 25, 8:30 pm; Sat, Jul 31, 8:30 pm) is the one exception that I have seen, and it’s an hilarious devised puppet/object theater piece that satirically skewers the literary canon from Sherlock Holmes to Anna Karenina, a treat for the well-read. From Chick Lit, a collaboration between Kate Holden and Katie Jones, the former a Providence native whose background includes Classical High School and New Urban Arts before going on to pursue an MFA and PhD very far away.

Space Shape & Mind Mold (Thu, Jul 29, 7:00 pm; Fri, Jul 30, 8:30 pm) is “a cosmic cabaret zoom disaster” demonstrating “subterranean alien encounters hosted by the Space Transformation Station’s resident Astro-Crypto Zoologist Dr Tremendanus and his Yuranian extraterrestrial collaborators” that presumably leaves you feeling as if your brain spent some time in a brain-shaped gelatin mold. From Space Transformation Station, a satellite studio of the famed Big Nazo Lab in Providence.

Alexithymia (Sun, Jul 25, 5:30 pm; Wed, Jul 28, 7 pm; ​Sat, Jul 31, 2:30 pm) explores the psychology of sensory experience as perceived by a fictional being whose body fragments and needs to re-assemble. From Madison Weinhoffer, a founding and active member of Spectrum Theatre Ensemble in Providence, a company focused on neurodiversity in the arts.

Mask On/Mask Off: Short Plays (Sun, Jul 25, 2:30 pm; ​Thu, Jul 29, 8:30 pm) is a collection of seven plays about the use of masks, both literally and figuratively. From a Providence playwriting group, in FringePVD for their 6th time, consisting of Elaine Brousseau, Kay Ellen Bullard, Susan Buttrick, Jayne Hannah, Norma Jenckes, Martha Douglas-Osmundson, and Monica Staaf, directed by Daniel Lee White.

On the Ho Chi Minh Trail & The Crisis (Fri, Jul 30, 7:00 pm; ​Sat, Jul 31, 4:00 pm) is a set of two one-act plays, the former looking at the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Viet Cong. From Milton Coykendall of Providence, whose day job is teaching students from various Asian countries including Japan, China, and Vietnam.

Veja Doolittle: Back Again (Tue, Jul 20, 8:30 pm; ​Wed, Jul 21, 7:00 pm) is an obvious pun on “déjà vu,” using stories and songs to explore memory. From Meg Sullivan, a Motif award winner (for dance) and Wilbury Group veteran whose day job is executive artistic director of the Manton Avenue Project, a non-profit after-school playwriting program in Olneyville.

ME7ROPOL17AN 7RANSPOR7A71ON AU74OR17Y (Sat, Jul 24, 5:30 pm) is a musical electronica multimedia homage to the New York City subway system, a concept that immediately suckered me in. From Darth Presley, who claims to be a cyborg with direct connections to his electronic instruments.

Dancing on Air: Amid COVID restrictions, local family of circus artists turns their yard into a stage

Twinkling lights spin down from the trees then disappear, while ribbons of music infuse the night – Rise Like a Phoenix, a three person, multi-act circus show, ran for four magical nights in June 2021. The performance was the work of Air and Silk, a family trio of circus artists who brought the enchantment of the circus into their own backyard. 

The idea began in 2020 as an effort to reach out to an elderly friend in NYC who was isolated and cut off by COVID from the theater and concerts she loved. Simone Jogl, along with daughters Skye and Anneken, created a story in movement as a gift for her, tracing their friend’s life story as an immigrant. They called the production Cirque for Sophia

“We took all the routines that we already knew and put that together with the story,” Anneken says. As the trio began working, the idea got bigger – with costumes, music and professional rigging for aerial silks. After filming a few runs to make a video for friends and family, the trio got even more ambitious: “Let’s do another story!” They began developing their ideas in February 2021. Rise Like A Phoenix is the breathtaking result, and the speed at which the production came together was astonishing.

Simone explains: “This only works when it’s pretty warm, and because of the pandemic, there was limited aerial time to rehearse the acts.” As a result they had only weeks to develop the full concept – but the trio had years of training and skills to assist them.

Simone and her husband, Gerwald, were both competitive amateur ballroom dancers in Austria, though not as a team. Their careers overlapped only by a year or so, then Gerwald went into martial arts and Simone focused on Latin American and 10 Dance, making the Austrian national team in both disciplines. Anneken inherited that same love of movement – she began aerial silks when she was 9, and later on began training in contortion as well; she is a Trouper at Circus Smirkus camp in Vermont this summer and she hopes to make this her career. “I’d like to do it professionally, maybe go to a circus college.” There are circus colleges? Anneken nods. “There’s a lot in Montreal, that’s the center. There’s one in Vermont, and in San Diego, but there aren’t that many in the US.” Does Skye have any ambitions to perform? “She is 14 so her ideas shift and change a lot,” says Simone, “but she loves performing and is thinking to fold that into her life for a few years, maybe as a street performer.”

Air and Silk is a remarkably versatile trio. They do everything themselves, from building the staging, platforms and green-rooms, to the design and set-up of lights. Air and Silk have produced some impressive multi-act circus shows as Lafayette Backyard Productions, and they are available for parties, corporate events and site-specific performances.

To see a trailer and stills from Rise Like A Phoenix, visit simone0023.wixsite.com/website/blog/. To receive a recording of the entire performance, contact simone@rolfing-providence.com.

A Full 180: REVOLVE Dance Project turns away from standard approaches to dance

The REVOLVE Dance Project is drawing us out from a year-long winter into the warmth and brightness of a stunning music and dance performance, set against the backdrop of a Rhode Island summer. Project director Kirstin Evans is thrilled to bring her “brainchild” to life at the Temple to Music at Roger Williams Park on July 24.

This show was born from Evans’ desire to give the dancers in her company a way to stay involved with their craft during what is normally a dance company’s off-season, but there is also a deeper and more personal reason for it. Evans is working toward acquiring nonprofit status for the Revolve Dance Project in order to expand the educational aspect of her work. She wants to remind young dancers what their art and passion are really for: themselves. Dance is an all-consuming art form that requires extraordinary amounts of both mental and physical dedication, and these requirements can make for a stressful and sometimes toxic environment that emphasizes perfection. Instead, Evans believes that dance should be about learning and growth in the classroom. It should be about progress, collaboration and pure love for the art form more than it should be about putting on perfect recitals and competitions. Evans says of her company, “I aim to create an environment for dancers where everyone feels comfortable and to give them a chance to be challenged to grow while enjoying the experience of progress along the way.” Evans eventually hopes to host artist talks, provide open rehearsals and workshops and give free tickets to kids to come and learn more about dance in a friendly and supportive environment.

Evans confessed that, above all else, she wants her dancers to focus on the creative process. And in combining dance with live music, she says the real experience she wants to provide is for the artists “to be able to use each other’s art forms to learn more about their own.” She hopes to get everyone involved in the performance to approach each of their art forms with a greater understanding of how dependent they are on each other.

Six professional dancers from around the world will perform at Temple to Music: Azamat Asangul, Brenna DiFrancesco, Kirsten Evans, Kailee Felix, Mamuka Kikalishvili and Alex Lantz. The five choreographers are Kurt Douglas, Dara Nicole, Jorge Rullán, Viktor Plotnikov and Alex Lantz, and the four musicians who will playing live are Daniel Hass, Josh Knowles, Cameron MacIntosh and Chrissy Stewart.

The Revolve Dance Project provides a unique opportunity to get people out of their houses and be fully immersed in art again, and Evans hopes to remind everyone how necessary and irreplaceable art is to a community. 

The outdoor performance will premiere on July 24 at The Temple to Music at Roger Williams Park, with a showing at 4pm and at 7pm. The performance will consist of five original pieces, four of which are world premieres. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to revolvedanceproject.com.

Epic Theatre Company AD Kevin Broccoli Accused of Sexual Impropriety: Epic to freeze all current and future performances

Epic Theatre Company founder and Motif contributor Kevin Broccoli was accused of sexual assault earlier this week, allegations found credible by an investigation conducted by Epic’s executive director Megan Ruggiero, general manager Lauren Pothier, and associate artistic director Angelique Dina. Broccoli is not stepping down from his position within the theater company, so that he can remain available to face community criticism. All future and current productions, however, have been frozen.

In a statement released early Wednesday morning Broccoli stated, “I have absolutely made mistakes in regards to starting inappropriate relationships with other people I had working relationships with, and as an artistic director, I should have known better.”

Ruggiero, Pothier and Dina resigned from their positions within the theater company as of Wednesday morning. In a public statement Ruggiero laid out the women’s intent to protect survivors and encourage more to come forward, saying, “We have the power together to not stand for this kind of behavior and to eradicate a culture within our theater community that all too often does not take allegations seriously and brushes these matters aside.”

Epic Theatre Company was founded in 2006 by Broccoli, when he was still an undergraduate at Rhode Island College. A mainstay of the semi-professional theater scene for much of the last decade, it’s been in the theater company in residence at Artist’s Exchange in Cranston’s Rolfe Square.

Broccoli’s contributions to Motif have been suspended for the indefinite future.

100 Thoughts I Had While Attempting to Memorize a Play

In July, Epic Theatre Company is going to be producing a play called Mayor Pete. I’m the artistic director of Epic, I wrote the play, and I am its sole actor. While producing a one-man show you wrote at the theater you run that features you in the only role has got to be the height of vanity, I would like to think I’m paying for all this arrogance by forcing myself to memorize 70 pages of a play after not having so much as committed a shopping list to memory in well over a year.

As many actors return to the stage and begin working out whatever part of the brain allows us to absorb entire scripts, I thought it would be interesting to document some of the things that ran through my mind as I continue to learn the part.

In no particular order:

  1. Do I remember how to do this?
  2. Did anybody invent a microchip over the past year that I can install in my brain so I don’t have to memorize anything ever again?
  3. I know I wrote this, but most of these lines should be cut.
  4. That line is impossible. I’m never going to get that.
  5. Could I use cue cards? Is that an option? They do it on SNL.
  6. Angela Lansbury uses an earpiece onstage. Can I do that?
  7. James Earl Jones does it too.
  8. If it’s good enough for Jessica Fletcher and Darth Vader, it’s good enough for me.
  9. I can’t say the word “priest.” 
  10. Why can’t I say the word “priest?” 
  11. Have I never been able to say it or is this a new phenomenon?
  12. Should I still be an actor?
  13. Is it too late to be a lawyer? I love arguing with people.
  14. Do you still have to go to school to be a lawyer?
  15. This sentence is written incorrectly.
  16. Nobody talks this way.
  17. I am never going to say this sentence correctly.
  18. Maybe if I practiced saying these lines with a British accent, this would be more fun.
  19. Should I use a general British accent or a specific one?
  20. I bet Kate Winslet would sound amazing saying these lines.
  21. Is it too late to replace me with Kate Winslet?
  22. How did she ever learn that accent in Mare of Easttown?
  23. I wish I could play a detective.
  24. Detectives barely talk. I’d have hardly any lines to learn.
  25. From now on, I’m only playing detectives.
  26. And mimes.
  27. I know this first page. That means I’m 1/70th of the way there.
  28. I should take a four-week break before I try to learn the other pages.
  29. Wow, that four weeks went by fast.
  30. Are there more lines than there were before?
  31. I think somebody added lines to this play.
  32. At least I know the first page.
  33. Okay, I don’t know the first page anymore.
  34. Did somebody change the first page?
  35. I swear I knew this page.
  36. I should learn these lines at the beach.
  37. It’s easier to learn lines somewhere other than home.
  38. Wow, I can’t learn lines here. It’s way too nice. I can’t focus.
  39. I should do this at home. What was I thinking coming here?
  40. This room is going to be where I learn my lines. It’s going to be a sacred temple where I honor memory and nothing else.
  41. I need to bring the tv in here. It’s too quiet.
  42. What’s that sound?
  43. Is that water dripping?
  44. I can’t concentrate with all this noise.
  45. I need to call a plumber.
  46. Can I run lines with the plumber?
  47. The plumber can’t be here until tomorrow.
  48. I guess no more running lines tonight.
  49. I need a better highlighter.
  50. I can’t take these lines seriously if they’re colored blue.
  51. Now I need another script. The old one is blue. It’s all blue. It’s ruined.
  52. Turns out yellow isn’t much.
  53. I should do that thing where I write the script out a thousand times.
  54. Okay, I wrote out half the first page and I’m exhausted.
  55. At least I know the first page.
  56. I mostly know the first page.
  57. I know the first line.
  58. I definitely know the first line.
  59. I know the title.
  60. If I went to an ashram, I could learn these lines.
  61. Do I know what an ashram is?
  62. Has Kate Winslet ever been to an ashram?
  63. Do they teach accents at an ashram?
  64. It’s too hot to learn lines.
  65. Is it going to be this hot all summer, because if so, I’ll never get these lines.
  66. Could we cut the play into sections and could I perform a different section each night?
  67. Each section could be one page long.
  68. One line long.
  69. It could be like a tv series.
  70. It could be like abstract art.
  71. One-minute theater. The play will be over sometime next year.
  72. How does Vin Diesel learn lines?
  73. I know he doesn’t do theater, but he must have to remember some of what he says on film.
  74. Is that why all he says in The Fast & the Furious is “We’re family” over and over again?
  75. Page two is too long.
  76. I should go right to page three.
  77. That looks long too.
  78. Aren’t there any short pages in this play?
  79. I don’t remember writing this.
  80. I would never have written anything this long.
  81. My head doesn’t have enough room in it for this play.
  82. I already have all of The Devil Wears Prada memorized. There’s no way I can put anything else in there.
  83. How is it I can’t remember any of this play but I remember every word to “Save All Up All Your Tears” by Cher and I haven’t listened to it since 2017?
  84. Maybe I could memorize this if I set it to music?
  85. What kind of music would go with a play about a gay presidential candidate?
  86. ABBA? Maybe ABBA?
  87. Wow, even ABBA isn’t helping.
  88. Wow, it’s expensive to stay in an ashram.
  89. I should just act in movies like The Fast & the Furious.
  90. I’m already a terrible driver. I’d be very convincing.
  91. I need a snack.
  92. I can’t eat and memorize at the same time.
  93. I should take a break. Just a few days … to a week.
  94. Time goes so quickly when you’re not memorizing anything.
  95. Would the audience notice if I wrote the entire script on the ceiling?
  96. Would they let me record Kate Winslet saying the lines and I could just lip-synch to it?
  97. We could put ABBA music behind it. It would be great.
  98. Or I could get the script tattooed on me. On all the parts that are easily visible.
  99. We’re going to need a lot of ink.
  100. What’s the title of this play again?

Island Moving Company Brings Great Friends to Newport

Photo by Bill Peresta

Island Moving Company is continuing its return to live performances with the Newport Dance Festival, which takes place July 20-25 on the lawn of Great Friend Meeting House in Newport. This unique festival will continue the tradition of hosting a resident company for two weeks: Malashock Dance Company from San Deigo. As part of the residency, John Malashock, artistic director of Malashock Dance Company, will choreograph a dance that both companies will perform together at the festival.   

Other dance companies taking part in the six-day dance festival include Boston Dance Theater (Boston), East Coast Contemporary Ballet (Norwalk, Conn.) and Revolve Dance Project (Providence). Inviting other dance companies to share the stage is in the spirt of “great friends,” the festival’s former name. The festival will be a display of diverse talent and choreographic points of view.  

Danielle Genest, associate artistic director of Island Moving Company, shared that an audience favorite of the Newport Dance Festival is the Etudes repertory. For each day of the performances, a novel dance is created in a 2-hour rehearsal, the day of the show. Any dancer can sign up to dance and choreograph for Etudes

Miki Ohlsen, artistic director of Island Moving Company states, “The joy of the Newport Dance Festival is bringing incredible choreographers and dancers from around the country and across the globe here to Newport to share their incredible art with our community.” 

Newport Dance Festival takes place Jul 20 – 25 at 7pm. Lawn of Great Friends Meeting House, 21 Farewell St, Newport. For more info, islandmovingco.org @islandmovingcompany 

Ready to Play: Contemporary Theater Company heads back onstage

Photo of Tammy Brown by Seth Jacobson

Theaters are on the road to reopening with in-person shows scheduled all over the state — many of them outdoors and still taking a limited number of precautions. The most ambitious seasonal programming so far is the Contemporary Theater Company’s summer line-up in Wakefield. The theater has an updated patio space and a new artistic director, Tammy Brown, as it looks ahead to the next few months.

Motif contributor Kevin Broccoli spoke with Brown about what audiences can expect to see when shows start up over Memorial Day Weekend.

Kevin Broccoli (Motif): How does it feel to finally be looking at in-person programming on the horizon?

Tammy Brown: It feels like we’re on the road to getting back to normal, thank goodness! It’s great to be getting back to that in-person experience that we’ve all missed so dearly, but it can be daunting, too. We’re trying to ease back into the grind without overwhelming ourselves too quickly. And we’re also re-learning how to socially interact and how to be in rehearsals and act and direct in-person again. It’s an adventure! 

KB: CTC has been undergoing some incredible growth, particularly in the patio area. How is this going to affect the summer season?

TB: Eventually it will be great because we’re adding a whole new seating section and a new bar area as well. But for this summer, it will definitely look like we’re under construction. All of our shows are out on the patio, so audiences will get to see our construction project first hand, in real time! But most of the former seating area of the patio is still intact, so it shouldn’t actually be a hindrance to shows. 

KB: When the time came to choose titles for the next few months, what was first on your mind? 

TB: I wanted our first few projects back to emphasize reinvention. Many of us made promises to not just go back to the same way we used to do things. I think theater constantly needs to evolve, so it always feels like the art form of the moment and not some historic relic. To that end, we have a lot of new work happening at the beginning of the summer — A new Shakespeare Mash-up show called Dearer The Eyesight, and a devised theater piece called Fools of Another Nature. The second half of the summer focuses on shows that feel like they belong outside, Bethel Park Falls  and Native Gardens, so it will feel very much like a site-specific theater experience. 

KB: How involved are you in the upcoming productions as the new artistic director? 

TB: The early part of our summer season is centered on new work, so I’ve been pretty involved in the development process of those shows. I’m also directing Dearer Than Eyesight and Native Gardens.  

KB: How important was it to you to keep the outdoor space active as we all begin to reopen?

TB: We see the patio space as a community gathering point, so it’s always been important for us to keep that space full of life. I think the fact that we have the patio space alone is what makes having an outdoor season possible this year, so we’re grateful for that, too. And the patio is a great place to stage things because we get a lot of curious passers-by, so it sparks their interest and hopefully entices them to come down and watch a show.  

KB: Can you tell me what the experience will be like for the audience in terms of keeping certain restrictions in place? 

TB: Guidance and guidelines are constantly evolving, so we’re definitely staying on top of that. For right now, the plan is to ask that members of the audience wear masks when moving about the space, but they can take them off when they’re seated. We plan on setting up the chairs with 3 feet of distance between them to start, but that could evolve over the course of the summer as more folks are vaccinated and people’s comfort levels change over time. We’re also mandating that all of our staff and volunteers be fully vaccinated by July 1, so our performers will be acting without masks. 

KB: Later this year, you’re going to be presenting The Tempest. When looking at a classical piece to produce, what attracted you to this one? 

TB: The things I was thinking about most were tone and familiarity. I wanted something that felt broad in scope, with a certain amount of gravity, but also something had some lightness to it and was ultimately hopeful. The Tempest fits those criteria nicely.  And picking a show that has some familiarity to it will hopefully entice people to come watch theater indoors again. 

KB: Bethel Park Falls was a show I was unfamiliar with until I heard you were producing it. Can you talk a little more about that production? 

TB: This is a pretty new play that was written by Jason Pizzarello in 2018. It’s made up of several sweet vignettes that talk about what happens when a beloved city park gets taken over by developers. I like how the play talks about the importance of public space to a community. Also, knowing that our season would be entirely outdoors, I loved the idea of staging a play that takes place in a park.  

KB: CTC has had a lot of luck taking titles like The Father and Skriker that are typically produced indoors and bringing them outside. I’m especially excited to see how Native Gardens plays in an outdoor setting. Is that something you thought about as you were looking at titles?

TB: That’s definitely something I was thinking about. We had actually planned to stage Native Gardens outdoors in the summer of 2020. Staging a show about gardens in a real garden seemed really fun. 

KB: What’s the response been like from the community now that you’ve announced you’re returning? I know how much the theater means to Wakefield and South County. Has it given you an extra boost seeing all the enthusiasm for you all to return in full force? 

TB: YES! We’re really grateful that our local community has been so supportive of us during the closure. There’s been a lot of excitement about both our reopening and our expansion. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to welcome people back and signal that we’re gonna be ok, and things are slowly going back to normal.

For more information about the Contemporary Theater Company’s summer season, including musical events like the Wakefield Idol Concert, go to contemporarytheatercompany.com

Indefinite Postponement: Stage lights go dark on Invoice

Invoice for Emotional Labor, slated to be the latest production from Wilbury Theatre Group, has been indefinitely postponed, artistic director Josh Short confirmed to Motif Tuesday evening. The cancellation comes on the heels of sexual assault accusations against the show’s playwright and star, Christopher Johnson. The accusations appeared recently on locally focused social media groups. 

Johnson, an internationally known poetry slam champion and local playwright, produced the one-man show in collaboration with Wilbury and Community College of Rhode Island with support from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. The show itself was inspired by John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons,” and Johnson tells stories and provides insight into his experience being both an artist-educator and Black person in America. Johnson covers racial etiquette, historical facts not taught in school, cultural differences, unconscious bias, cultural appropriation and more. 

Wilbury has no plans to reschedule the show at this time, said Short. Johnson could not be reached for comment in time for this posting.

Post amended May 19 at 9:30pm. The last sentence of the first paragraph was made more specific and the last sentence was updated. Mr. Johnson did respond to our inquiries, just not in time for this article.

Back in Business: Rhode Island theaters plan their in-person return

Photo credit: Samantha Gaus

As we wrap up our (hopefully) last pandemic season, where theaters were making the best of digital resources and innovative engagement, we’re seeing more signs of in-person performing arts everyday.

This week featured Window Dressing: A Night of Live Entertainment in Wickford presented by the West Bay Community Theater, and had audiences taking in monologues performed in shop windows in the picturesque village. The always brilliant Terry Shea organized the outdoor experience, and it looked to be a great success. The Community Players of Pawtucket presented a virtual production of The Night of January 16th, reuniting several members of its original cast, as a tribute to the great Brian Mulvey, who directed the show in 1994.

We also got not one, but two, season announcements.

The first was from Trinity Repertory Company, which is returning with a quartet of productions and their annual Christmas Carol, which will be the first and only live production we see at the theater before the year is up.

In January, they’ll be presenting the Rhode Island Premiere of Tiny Beautiful Things, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame and adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). The play was co-conceived by Vardalos, Thomas Kail and Marshall Heyman, and it had a sold-out run at the Public Theater in New York in 2016. It’s a semi-autobiographical look at Strayed’s rise to popularity as the anonymous advice columnist for Dear Sugar. Artistic director Curt Columbus will direct.

August Wilson’s Radio Golf was one of the highlights of Trinity’s last in-person season, and its director, Jude Sandy, is back doing double duty on both Gem of the Ocean in February and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview in May. Chronologically, Gem of the Ocean is the first in Wilson’s epic Pittsburgh Cycle. It’s the playwright’s most fantastical work and features the omnipresent Aunt Esther, who recurs in many of the other plays in the cycle.

Fairview not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018, but it is, perhaps, one of the most ambitious plays of the past 10 years. Its inaugural production blurred the line between reality and theater so well that critics wrote about audiences at some performances calling out to ask if what they were seeing was still “part of the play.” It’s destined to be a major event of next season, and I’m curious to see how the Trinity audiences will respond to such an adventurous work.

In between these two will be Sueño, José Rivera’s contemporary interpretation of Life is a Dream, the masterpiece by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, about a young prisoner freed to either rise to glory or end up imprisoned again. As classics go, Life is a Dream is certainly one of the most daring titles you could choose, and Rivera is a playwright who doesn’t get produced nearly enough. Trinity’s stellar production of Marisol proved that he should be on the shortlist anytime you want to produce soul-grabbing theater. Tatyana-Marie Carlo is slated to direct in April.

Independent theaters in the area are also making plans for future productions, including two very different takes on one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. Burbage Theatre Company has a filmed version of Macbeth on the way, while Psych Drama Company will be presenting an audio version in association with the Audiovisual Center Dubrovnik. The production will feature original music and soundscape by Zarko Dragojevik and an art exhibit of Nick Morse’s paintings during intermission. Psych Drama’s Lion in Winter was a standout audio experience, and they appear to be upping their game once more. They’ll be following that up with a second audio production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Meanwhile, this summer already looks jam-packed with opportunities to see outdoor theater. The Contemporary Theatre Company is planning a full summer out on their gorgeous patio, including Bethel Park Falls and Native Gardens, Mixed Magic has their amphitheater ready to go for another summer of blockbuster theater and music, and Glass Horse Project will be mounting Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

As we start to see the number of digital productions dwindle, a nice way to celebrate local arts resiliency would be to take in Red Maple, a digital comedy presented by the Players at the Barker Playhouse. Their virtual productions have been some of the finest of the past year, and I’m happy to check out one more.

If I’ve missed anybody, please let me know, and I’ll be sure to mark you down in my calendar. After spending years quietly bemoaning having so much theater to see, I can’t wait to have that be my biggest problem again.

Over at my theater, we have an expression for what the next year calls for, and I might as well use it here as well.

Buckle Up.

Who Has the Rights?: On Licensing and Equity

“We know how disappointing this must be…”

I’m not sure why, but it had never occurred to me that as theaters were preparing to reopen all over the country, there would be a return to certain processes and procedures that were bound to make us wish we could stay dormant for just a little longer.

One of them being the utter torment known as applying for rights.

If you’re a larger company, it’s possible your experience with licensing is mostly positive. The licensing companies such as Dramatists and Concord Theatricals (formerly known as Samuel French) are not at all shy about engaging in Pay to Play when it comes to doling out permissions. While they go out of their way to make their decision-making as opaque as possible, their eventual reasoning for why bigger organizations get exclusivity over certain (usually newer) titles is because … they pay more for it.

It used to be that this was a perk of being an equity theater. These licensing houses would make it seem as though by restricting titles so that only “professional” houses could do them, they were somehow protecting the sanctity of having larger venues produce work first, as though that were some guarantee that the work would receive a higher quality premiere production in a given region. That logic has recently gone down the drain as its become clear that “professional rights” really just means “more expensive rights” and as long as you’re willing to pony up, you can purchase that same exclusivity whether you’re a regional powerhouse or just a kid right out of college whose parents can afford to finance a production of the latest Tony Award winner. As far as I can tell, there is no criteria in place to ensure quality, even if that was something a licensing company could do or was even tasked with doing. Send them a big enough check, and they’ll make sure you get first crack at a show.

This mixed with the culture of wanting to produce “premieres” of a high-interest titles led to a piranha pool in the pre-pandemic times of theaters being stuck into regions (again, hard to tell which region you’re in, because most of the time, the licensing companies will only give you a vague idea of where that is, something akin to artistic gerrymandering), and that means when a larger theater wants to produce a show, nobody else can go anywhere near it for at least one season. While that may be frustrating, it’s not nearly as enraging as when a theater puts a “hold” on a title, which means they might want to produce it, and they’re willing to put up some cash while they consider doing it, but if they don’t, the licensing company keeps the bulk of the money, the playwrights get a smaller amount than they would if the play were actually produced, and nobody gets to see the work, because it languishes on some mysterious purgatorial list that none of us are allowed to see. Years ago, I was told I couldn’t produce a show because a local professional theater was “interested” in it. Having good relationships with the professional theaters in the area, I simply called around and asked about the title, since I couldn’t imagine anyone else really intending to produce it. Sure enough, one of the local theaters had put a hold on it, but once they read it, they lost interest, and simply forgot to tell the company that held the rights. The company certainly wasn’t going to say anything, but had I not gotten the theater to contact them and remove the hold, that work might never have been produced. The reality of producing new shows is that sometimes their luster lies in their “newness.” If a title is held back long enough, people forget about it or simply lose interest and look for something else. If you’re thinking that based on how the money breaks down when it comes to holding rights versus actually granting them, it might be advantageous for licensing companies to seek out more holds rather than advocate for work to be produced, you’re not wrong.

Oftentimes, they’ll put it on a playwright or their agents when they refuse a company the right to perform a show, even though I’ve personally contacted agents and playwrights numerous times after being turned down for rights only to find that the writers had no idea their work was being hoarded by the people they trust to get it on as many stages as possible. In fact, after getting the rights released to three different plays by contacting their writers (all of whom were unbelievably gracious and quite annoyed that their work wasn’t being made readily available), I received a letter from the company representing their work that can only be described as mafia-esque. It told me that I needed to stop “bothering” the playwrights. When I forwarded my correspondence with all three to show that, as far as I could tell, no bothering was taking place, I received another email letting me know that the playwrights only have a “minor say” in where their work can be produced, and that if I kept trying to game the system, I would be in jeopardy of not being granted rights to anything moving forward. Because while some of these companies are easier to deal with than others, they all have the habit that most businesses have of mirror bad practices, knowing if they all do it, then they all can get away with it, I had no choice but to back down. One of the playwrights I was in contact with not only assured me that he wasn’t bothered, but he described the monopoly-style hold these companies have over rights to be a necessary evil when trying to get produced. He confirmed that, yes, when he wants to put up a fight over letting a small theater do his work, he can sometimes win the argument, more often than not, he’s told to back down, and so now he barely ever fights the good fight, and truthfully, I don’t blame him.

The Premiere Problem is especially an issue considering how close we are to Boston, where some theaters seem to have “producing whatever was popular in New York” as their sole mission statement. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve looked at a season in Boston only to see a mishmash of titles that only have their premiere status in common. Boston gets priority over even the biggest theaters in Providence, which means, even though any Rhode Islander will tell you that we’re unlikely to drive to Boston to see a play when we can just wait for it to trickle down a few years later to our local stages (again, provided the title doesn’t gather too much dust while it sits on the shelf), the priority for those Boston theaters is to say that they’re producing the “New England” or the “Regional” Premiere. It used to be exciting enough to say you were doing the state-wide premiere, but I guess as audience numbers in Boston dwindled, the language had to shift to try and make these shows sound more compelling. That meant a stranglehold over anything that wasn’t less than five years old.

So why does all this matter?

Because as we begin to get back in the habit of creating theater, we have made promises to do it better than we did before, and while that’s admirable, we have not even begun to have a conversation about the adjacent industries that we depend on (and who depend on us) to change along with us. The licensing companies have made no such promises, and it’s clear that they intend to go right back to the way they’ve always done things, despite the glaring inequities in determining who gets to produce what based on resources and finances. It’s no wonder most theaters end up producing dated schlock when it sometimes takes weeks to hear back after applying for a title only to find out you’ve had the door closed in your face, and you’re not allowed to ask why.

Shakespeare might be predictable, but at least you don’t need to check with his agents if you want to produce The Tempest.

While we have to hold ourselves accountable to do better, we also need to hold the people and industries around us accountable. It’s not a question of if they want to do better, but whether we mandate that we do. I understand the logic of wanting to make sure there aren’t multiple productions of a title within the same year, but what’s wrong with “First come, first served?” It would seem to me that any theater willing to make a commitment to produce a title as early as possible clearly feels passionately about producing that work. I’d even be open to the idea that a theater can only produce a certain number of high-interest titles in a given season. There are all sorts of ways to make this system more equitable, but as of now, there is no movement happening that’s looking to change the businesses that are in charge of our most precious commodities–

Our stories.

If we don’t put pressure on them to change the way they allow us to produce work, how can the work itself get better? The reality is that as much as I would champion producing brand new plays, smaller companies would benefit the most from being given a popular title to bring in audiences, so why not give them that leg up?

I’m well-aware that this is one of those inside baseball topics that makes people’s eyes glaze over once I start ranting about it, but it is most likely the reason you see otherwise exciting companies putting on droll productions and uninspired seasons. It is demoralizing to be at the whim of some imposing behemoth run by people you’ll never meet, who have such a large say in the kind of artistic direction you’re able to take your company. Many of the artists coming out of the pandemic who are interested in changing the landscape of theater are going to want to do so by producing work of their own, and if this is the kind of red tape and fiscal favoritism they’re met with, I can’t imagine it’ll take long for them to surrender any hope of coming back better.

Like it or not, these companies are our partners in the creative process, and as such, they need to be willing to make the same changes we are, even if we’re one of the larger theaters who profit from their current way of doing things. We said we were all committed to a radical reformation not just in terms of the art itself, but the business around the art.

That’s the contract we drew up over a year ago.

It’s time for them to sign it.