So you’re considering diving into the world of Rhode Island theater. Whether you’re new to the area or just haven’t explored what’s on offer yet, it’s the perfect time to get initiated, with new seasons starting up and some changes on the horizon. As you might expect in such a small state, our theater community is close-knit, but you might not realize just how vibrant and varied the theater scene here truly is. While it’s easy to get caught up in the goings on at the Providence Performing Arts Center and Trinity Rep, there are plenty of other theaters all over the state that deserve your attention. Though I have both lived in Rhode Island and loved theater all of my life, I am still consistently blown away by the talent and originality in this community. Even if you think you’ve found your corner of Rhode Island theater, it’s worth branching out and checking out different theaters and different shows than you would normally see. Whether you’re discovering or rediscovering local theater, here are some places to start.
On a Budget
You might not have the money to dole out on exorbitant Broadway tickets, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see high quality theater. There are plenty of theaters around Rhode Island that strive to be affordable. Both the Contemporary Theater Company in South Kingstown and the Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence (which just moved to a new location) offer pay-what-you-can tickets. The Wilbury Group also runs the annual Providence Fringe Festival every summer, which offers very affordable tickets — plus, all proceeds from ticket sales go directly to the artists. Many theaters also offer special rates for students.
One fantastic way to see shows for free and give back at the same time is to volunteer as an usher. Pretty much any theater is always looking for volunteers, as they would not be able to operate without them. The requirements for volunteers vary based on the theater. Some, like PPAC, require you to volunteer at a certain number of shows. Others, like the Stadium Theater in Woonsocket, are much more lenient and allow you to volunteer for as many or as few shows as you want. As long as you don’t mind dressing like a penguin and standing for a long time, there’s a theater that would love to have you.
And All That Jazz
There’s a gaping hole in the hearts of musical lovers across Rhode Island where the Ocean State Theater Company used to be — as well as a sadly empty theater in Warwick. Though the professional musical powerhouse is still sorely missed after its sudden closing a few months ago, there are plenty of other places to get your musical fill. For one thing, don’t overlook community theater groups like Academy Players in Providence and Encore Rep and Shining Light of the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket. They each put on a few well-loved musicals a year; some of their recent productions have included If/Then, Bring It On and Young Frankenstein, featuring local talent that will blow you away.
If you’re interested in something edgier, The Wilbury Group usually puts on one musical a year. These aren’t your family-friendly, G-rated, fun musicals that you see in other venues. Past musicals they’ve done include Next to Normal and Spring Awakening, both of which tackle serious subjects that might not be for the faint of heart.
For the Kids
If you’re looking to bring along a future thespian on your journey through Rhode Island theater, there are definitely options available. The key thing is to do research on the show; even shows that look perfectly innocent may not be. Over the summer, Theatre by the Sea in Wakefield usually puts on some kid-friendly shows. Other safe bets include any youth theaters or junior productions of shows. Swamp Meadow in Foster puts on one youth production every summer and two productions for all ages during the summer. The Stadium Theater also hosts a few junior productions throughout the year. When the holidays roll around, the many productions of A Christmas Carol can be an enchanting experience. Trinity Rep’s production is a staple of Christmas in Rhode Island — for a while when I was younger, I saw it every year — and this year’s should be particularly memorable with the incomparable Joe Wilson Jr. as Scrooge.
Original, Edgy and/or Downright Weird
You don’t have to travel far to see a show that’s totally new and original. There are playwrights right here creating and putting on original works all the time. If you’re bored with mainstream, time-tested theater, these are the places to check out. As long as you go in with an open mind (in some cases, a VERY open mind), you’ll come away having had a unique experience. The number one destination for edgy new works is, of course, the Fringe Festival, which showcases the works of artists from here and around the country for one week during the summer. As for the rest of the year, its host, The Wilbury Group, has a new works program called Studio W that puts on readings, workshops and full-fledged productions. Perhaps the biggest name in new works in Rhode Island is Kevin Broccoli of Epic Theatre Company, whose plays may be the most daring around.
There is amazing work happening in the Rhode Island theater community on all levels, and there are too many theaters to shout out here. To really get a sense of what’s going on this season, keep an eye on our theater listings and see what piques your interest. There is always a wide array of shows going on, so whether you’re looking to laugh, cry or be inspired, you’ll find something that fits the bill. Whatever your interests within theater, whether it’s in the audience, on stage or backstage, there’s a way to participate, and there’s a place for you in this community.