On the third weekend in May, The Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket was a busy place, as it is most weekends these days. Friday night, it was an Everly Brothers tribute band on a national tour making its only stop in Rhode Island. Saturday night, country music singer Sara Evans played to a packed house — all 1,088 seats in what is both a spacious and intimate setting.
The Stadium — as most call it — will hold 175 events this year alone, up from 100 annually just five years ago. They range from concerts to community theater productions to children’s theater camps.
“Our shows are constantly changing, our expansion is constantly changing and if you are not changing you will die,’’ said Cathy Levesque, the CEO and executive director of the Stadium Theatre Performing Arts Center. She has seen a total transformation of the 91-year-old building, which, when it opened in 1926, had three shows a day — every day. But when the multiplex cinemas came, the crowds disappeared and the building fell into disrepair.
In the 1990s, a group wanting to resurrect the building held a marathon fundraiser under the familiar marquee, hoping to raise $1,380 — the call letters of a local radio station. It netted $25,000 and the renovation began. Over the next decade, dozens of volunteers pitched in to restore the historic building. And it’s those volunteers who today are an indispensable part of the Stadium’s operations.
When the renovations were completed in 2001, the public got to see a stunning building, true to its original architecture, but with some modern touches. Performers and patrons alike have the same reaction.
“They always say ‘wow’ — they always do, from the murals, the fountains, the seating style, the curtains … you feel it, it’s like a pulse. It’s not empty,” Levesque said. “When you’re standing on the stage, when you’re standing in the theater, there’s something that you feel is alive.”
Now the theater is embarking on a new project: Three years ago the non-profit Stadium Theater Foundation bought a vacant building adjacent to the main theater. They are in the middle of a $4 million renovation of the five-floor, 30,000-square-foot Stadium Theater Conservatory. The foundation is about halfway to the fundraising goal.
Already the conservatory building allows the theater to store costumes in a massive room on the basement floor instead of off-site. They are sorted and carefully cataloged, readily accessible when needed. After the renovations are complete, the costumes will move up to the third floor and the space will be converted to a 150-seat theater for smaller shows. There will also be room to build and store sets and for much-needed administrative offices.
“(The Conservatory) will allow us to be more efficient,” Levesque said. “Right now we’re building sets, we’re building costumes here, there and everywhere. The bulk of it’s being done on the first floor, but it’s tough when you don’t have rehearsal space. Every single individual who has a job here and those who will be hired will have an office and have space to do what they do best and have space for volunteers to come in and sew, and come in and help build sets.”
And it’s not just the performances. The Stadium began offering educational programs about a decade ago. Over April vacation we watched children rehearsing on the grand stage, in a recently converted marquee room where smaller shows and events are held, and even out in the lobby because space is tight.
All week the children practiced for a show on Friday morning that capped a week of theater camp — with friends and family filling the entire lower half of the theater to watch the performance on the big stage. The Stadium will hold three two-week summer sessions during June, July and August.
Jordan Harris became the Stadium’s marketing manager eight years ago. “I think most people, when they come and see the theater for the first time, they say, ‘Wow I have to keep coming back here.'”
Harris says the variety of shows — and prices — appeals to patrons, most of whom come from outside of Woonsocket, many from southern Massachusetts and nearby Connecticut. The Stadium prides itself on providing a venue for local actors and performers. “All of our community theater, those are local people with full-time jobs,” Harris said. “But you wouldn’t know it when you came here and saw them perform. And we’re giving them this awesome venue in which to really take their passion and show it off.”
The Stadium still needs to raise money to complete the conservatory. But making progress and watching the vision turn into reality is helping attract donors. A private foundation wanting to remain anonymous has come on board with support now that the building renovations are turning a corner.
Harris said, “I oftentimes say that we’re not a community theater even though we host community theater shows. We are the community’s theater because everybody who comes here leaves taking a little bit with it, taking a little bit of the theater with them.”
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