You’re new here. Haven’t had a chance to settle in and get your cultural bearings on the Ocean State. What even happens in Rhode Island? Is there life outside of Providence? It goes without saying that the food and drink scene is booming, and of course there’s a plethora of live music to sift through, but those are such obvious choices for a night out. You have good taste, damn it. You’re a classy human being. What could the smallest state in the Union possibly have to offer such a sophisticated palate? World class live theater, that’s what.
I’ve been harping on this all year, but it’s a seriously exciting time for theater in Providence, if not Rhode Island as a whole. Several young theater companies have come into their own and many more are popping up on the periphery. If you’re into the performing arts, this just might be the best time in a generation to get down with the Rhode Island theater scene. So where do you start?
Cooler and Louder
Downtown Providence is the most exciting place for theater in the state, both for audience and artist alike. Don’t get fooled into thinking Trinity Rep is your only option for a show in the capital city. There are two resident theater companies downtown and an ever-rotating roster of companies who perform in collaboration with AS220. The restaurants, the bars and boutiques have made the once run-down downtown more contemporary and urban than ever. With that comes abundant night life and with night life comes hipsters. And with hipsters comes high caliber art. For whatever reason, downtown Providence is dominated by young theater companies doing what is, for my money, the coolest, most daring work in the state.
For starters, there’s no one who’s doing work quite like Kira Hawkridge and her team at Out Loud. Heavy theatrical atmosphere, symbiotic acting ensembles, creative practical effects — these things are standard. But what’s truly impressive about Out Loud is that they’ve managed to develop a distinct voice in such a short time. When you see an Out Loud show, it has a style, it has a flavor all its own. Entering their sixth season, they continue to produce highly stylized shows that remind audiences of the potential of the medium. If you’re looking for some arthouse theater, Out Loud on Matthewson Street is your first stop.
Literally around the corner from Matthewson, there’s Burbage Theatre Company on Westminster. Thanks to a most excellent partnership with Aurora Providence, Burbage has gained a foothold downtown. Another young company, Burbage now has the space and the resources to do some real spectacle shows (Titus Andronicus, anyone?). They produce irreverent, provocative work with heavy duty actors at the center. As the resident theater company at one of Providence’s busiest performance venues, you’re getting a different experience at a Burbage show. You can grab a cocktail, see Burbage do their thing, and then stick around and witness the eclectic grab-bag of live music Aurora has to offer on any given night.
If you walk one block dead ahead from Aurora, you reach Empire Street and Providence’s favorite multi-use space, AS220. They host a number of theater companies, but the one to watch out for has to be Strange Attractor. Strange Attractor defies category. A little off-kilter, a little tongue-in-cheek, completely original, these guys are a conceptual extravaganza of a theater company. Their previous work includes throwing a birthday party for the whole audience, futuristic spaceship Shakespeare and a love story staged in a post-apocalyptic suitcase fortress. There’s something Wes Anderson-y about their aesthetic (check out their videos online, you’ll see what I mean) and that’s exactly what Providence needs and deserves. The emphasis placed firmly on audience experience, the fourth wall is regularly demolished.
The Providence Improv Guild, or PIG, has really taken off this year. Their residence at the South Side Cultural Center has afforded them not only performance space, but the opportunity to hold regular improv classes. The whole point of PIG (and let’s take a moment to acknowledge that acronym) is to proliferate improv comedy in Rhode Island. Their mission statement indicates that the reason they want you to see a PIG show is so you can take classes and do it yourself. Think about that. You could be in the audience one night, and two months later, you could be up there yourself. If you’ve ever had the improv itch, PIG’s got you covered.
Back at AS220, be sure to catch Empire Revue. This monthly show offers a hilarious, grin-inducing mix of sketch comedy and music.
Okay, so you’re into musicals. That’s fine. I’m not here to judge, I’m here to help. Take a drive over to Warwick and get your Rogers and Hammerstein on with Ocean State Theatre Company. They’ve basically become the gold standard for the singing and dancing stuff in Rhode Island. The production quality is high, there’s a bunch of showtimes for each production and their building is bright blue. Rather than frequenting PPAC, if you’ve got a hankering for some kicklines and four-part harmonies, hit up OSTC.
Although they aren’t necessarily a musical theater company, it’s worth mentioning that The Wilbury Group puts on the best musicals that you can’t take your grandma to. Alternative musical theater, I guess, is what you’d call it? They have a history of staging awesome straight plays, but where Wilbury differentiates themselves from the herd is their musicals. Passing Strange; Next to Normal; Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson — definitely a little more edgy in terms of content than say, Damn Yankees. Which is fine. Again, you can like musicals. You’re allowed to. Um… Anyway…
Fresh, Never Frozen
If you wanna roll the dice and check out some new plays, Rhode Island has no shortage of playwrights creating original work. The aforementioned Wilbury Group has developed an impressive new works program including staged readings, workshops and full-fledged productions by resident playwright Ben Jolivet. Over at Epic Theatre Company, the ubiquitous Kevin Broccoli generates and stages an obscene amount of content, some of which pertains to Greek mythology and strippers. And if you’re willing to venture to West Warwick, Lenny Schwartz and The Arctic Playhouse also perform a ton of new work.
Seeing plays in Rhode Island has been unexpectedly rewarding. The variety of work continues to surprise me, and I keep finding talented people who inspire me. If you’re strictly looking to be a spectator in the scene, awesome. Theater needs a reliable audience. But if you’re an ex-theater kid, a fledgling playwright or a vagabond dramaturg, I urge you to be brave and participate. Go to auditions, workshop your play, take an improv class. You’ll understand why I said this place has world class live theater. Once you get over the potholes, the accents and the corruption, Rhode Island’s not such a bad place.