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Ensemble, Assemble! New Theater Dominates Downtown Providence

PVDI had the opportunity to sit down with two of Rhode Island’s youngest and most prolific artistic directors: Kira Hawkridge of Out Loud and Jeff Church of Burbage Theatre Company. I wanted to find out what exactly was happening in downtown Providence — how these would-be rivals manage to cohabit the same block and compete for audiences in one of the most hipster-centric cities on Earth. What sort of insidious “Game of Thrones”-style plots did these masterminds have up their sleeves?

“It’s all about ensemble. Finding a really good group of people who are willing to work with one another and not stick to one rigid thing,” said Church. Hawkridge dittoed, “The ensemble is something we agree on, but what drives us is also very different, which is exciting.”

Collaboration is the name of the game. Despite aesthetic differences, the mission of these two companies is remarkably similar. Big ambition, small budget. “Those types of limitations allow you to explore … embracing where we are and not looking at it as a limitation, but an opportunity,” a disarmingly articulate Kira Hawkridge said.  Jeff added, “Having limited resources, if you want to call them limited, keeps us to very theatrical means.”

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Those limitations have facilitated some truly daring work. Burbage is mounting productions of Vonnegut and Shakespeare at their home base, Aurora Providence on Westminster. Just down the street on Matthewson, Out Loud embarks on a season based entirely in the public domain (Antigone, Dracula, Coriolanus) — and get this — admission is free.

But make no mistake, these kids have paid their dues. Out Loud is going into its fourth season, and Burbage is about to enter its sixth year of existence.  They’ve spent that time cultivating a core group, an ensemble, but also fostered an atmosphere of collaboration where artists from theaters across the state are invited to participate.

Both companies are gaining serious momentum. With each passing season they improve, attract new talent, and drive the medium forward. But is there a place for theater in the ultra-cool oasis that is Providence? In a city that The New York Times recently called “the Portland, Oregon, of the Northeast” (*vomit*) where food, visual art and music dominate, can theater compete?

Alone, either company could succumb to its own devices and fade into oblivion. Together, however, they can prop one another up and support and advocate for their art in what is, in my opinion, an uphill battle for recognition and acceptance. Considering the strides these young thespians have made in such a short time, my gut tells me they have a shot.

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