Hungry for live performance experiences? After an 18-month fast because of the pandemic, South County culture vultures can once again feast upon a smorgasbord of live theater, music, film screenings, and arts events.
Most notable is the hotly anticipated opening of the United Theatre in Westerly. The long-shuttered historic vaudeville theater and movie house received an extreme makeover over the past two years, turning the theater — and its neighboring connected building, the former Montgomery Ward department store — into Westerly’s first year-round arts hub.
Leading the transition from construction site to a buzzing arts campus is Lisa Utman Randall, whose superpower appears to be launching new arts centers. Randall founded Newport Island Arts in 1990 before heading to the Jamestown Arts Center for its opening. When she got the call to lead The United ahead of its launch, she was initially skeptical about leaving her home at Jamestown — that is until she toured the construction site and learned its vibrant history and vision for the future.
Buoyed by an engaged board of directors, as well as 250 founding donors, this world-class arts venue was the brainchild of Westerly champion Chuck Royce, who has spearheaded a large portion of Westerly’s downtown revitalization, including the rehabilitation of the iconic Ocean House.
Spanning two buildings, The United campus is like a mini-Lincoln Center. Its main theater is a flexible space, which can fit up to 600 people for live performances. By stripping out the rake and having movable seating, the space encourages innovative and creative configurations. “It keeps the space dynamic and exciting,” says Randall. “It will feel like a whole new space for our audiences.”
A screen comes down in front of the balcony, creating a 100-seat cinema. There are two additional screening spaces, one with 85 seats and a “micro-screening room” that seats 24, which will show art-house movies as well as be available to rent for parties. All three cinema spaces have first-run capacity, which means the latest Marvel film can screen beside quirky indie fare and revivals of classics.
A gallery space looks out at Canal Street and will feature local, regional, and national artists. The first gallery exhibit is local photographer Josh Behan’s Faces of Westerly portrait series. A local storytelling event, Voices of Westerly, will be held concurrently. The United is also talking to Savoy Bookshop & Cafe, which is situated right across Canal, to host author events and book signings in the gallery space.
While The United plans on booking nationally and internationally acclaimed artists to perform and show their work, its roots are firmly planted in the South County community. “We want to fit into the local ecosystem,” explains Randall, which means local partnerships form the backbone of the organization. “We want to connect the arts to the community and education wherever we can. It adds to the breadth and depth of the work.”
Through the pandemic, The United partnered with neighboring music venue The Knickerbocker to present virtual music performances, ranging from the Grammy-nominated Jon Batiste to local favorite The Huntress and the Holder of Hands, a partnership they plan on continuing as live
performance comes back. A news hub for The Public’s Radio’s expansion into South County is in the works that will include office space and a podcast studio. With both the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals, The United has created “On the Way to Newport,” a performance series that will showcase
music artists performing at the famed festivals but on their own more intimate stages.
“We want to have world-class performers as much as we can,” Randall says, noting that their programming will be eclectic. “Cross referencing different mediums creates opportunities for people to explore the arts and not just from an audience perspective.”
Education is a key component. Through the music school, podcast classes through The Public’s Radio, the use of the micro-screening room for student film projects, and master classes with visiting artists, The United emboldens the community to be more than passive observers. They forged one of their earliest partnerships with the RI Philharmonic, creating an ultramodern music school for their students in the lower level that can fit up to 350 students. A state-of-the-art Dante system runs through all the performance spaces, effectively turning the entire building into a recording studio.
“We want to create as many opportunities as possible for kids and adults to explore the arts,” says Randall. “How do we encourage people’s relationship with the arts? And how can we support it?”
The pandemic, surprisingly, didn’t curtail their plans. They used the downtime to strengthen their bonds within the community by hosting a series of pop-up events like movie screenings and concerts in the neighboring Wilcox Park as well as the aforementioned Live from the Knickerbocker music streaming series. They hosted screenings of indie films from their Virtual Screening Room. They also transformed Misquamicut’s drive-in movie theater into a live concert space, hosting a concert by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.
Most notably, then-Governor Gina Raimondo approached The United to create an event celebrating the 2020 graduating class who saw their commencement curtailed by the pandemic. The United for Grads virtual concert event brought together musicians like Jon Batiste and Deer Tick and celebrities like Stephen Colbert and Shepard Fairey to celebrate Rhode Island’s high school seniors; through donations from corporate sponsors, The United was able to raise over $80,000 for local artists in need.
While their doors are now open and they are ready and eager for live audiences, The United isn’t quite done expanding yet. Part of the basement level is still raw space, where Randall envisions art classes. A section of the third floor, which could make great editing bays, remains up for grabs. An attached restaurant will open to the public in the fall and there are plans for a grab-and-go cafe concept. It all converges to make The United one of the state’s premiere arts destinations.
It’s a busy August at the United, which features a concert from the Bruce Harris Young Jazz Masters (August 13); a screening of the Sesame Street documentary Street Gang followed by a Q&A from Sesame Street Muppeteers (August 19); as well as a number of first run films like Marvel’s Black Widow; the Questlove-directed documentary Summer of Soul; the Anthony Bourdain documentary Roadrunner; Disney's Jungle Cruise with The Rock and Emily Blunt; and Stillwater, starring Matt Damon.
5 Canal Street, Westerly
Innovation was key for the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield to move forward throughout the pandemic, even growing their full-time staff from four to six. Because of their outdoor performance space, they were able to host some small, socially distanced, and masked events throughout last summer. A number of virtual events kept them connected with their audience, including their 24 Hour Play Festival, which was bigger than ever. However, Artistic Director Tammy Brown is quick to point out, “screens are not our medium. But it allowed us to expand the scope of our work, and we are thinking about how to incorporate some virtual elements,” even as they return to a live model. “Theater is built on connection, community, and relationships,” says Brown. “The art form is about being together and sharing space. Seeing the community come back together is really special.”
The Contemporary Theater Company returns to scripted shows this month with Bethel Park Falls by Jason Pizzarello, a play about the residents of the small town Bethel who are about to lose their beloved park (August 6 – 29). The crowd-pleasing Wakefield Idol returns for a summer concert on August 12. 327 Main Street, Wakefield
West Kingstown’s Courthouse Center for the Arts has a unique mission: community enrichment through inclusive free music, acting, and art programs for kids and families. The pandemic put the organization in dire straits. After sending out a fundraising plea last spring, they were able to raise $57,000 from the community to make needed repairs to the building and kickstart their programming. While some shows went on when restrictions were partially lifted, the audience was limited for social distancing. Many of the perks of attending a show, like meet-and-greets with the artists, were curtailed. Now that restrictions are lifted and audience capacity has returned, the bookings are growing and the kids are returning. Executive Director Mariann Almonte is excited to see cheerful crowds return to the venue. As she wrote on the venue’s Facebook page back in June, “it’s been killing me not to see people smile.”
The Courthouse is jamming all month with an eclectic lineup of bands, including The Legendary Steve Katz with Kala Farnham (August 7); Chicago Total Access, dedicated to the music of Chicago (August 14); The Pousette-Dart Band (August 26); and The Troublemakers covering The Allman Brothers and more (August 28). 3481 Kingstown Road, West Kingstown
“Our audiences are amazing,” says The Gamm Theatre’s Artistic Director Tony Estrella. “It was remarkable to see the outpouring of generosity throughout COVID.” Even though their mainstage theater in Warwick remained closed from the pandemic, The Gamm stayed busy with online programming, including their novel interview series Brush Up Your Shakespeare, which featured conversations with leading performers that aimed to demystify the Bard’s language and plays. There was also the wildly successful audio adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life, co-produced with The Public’s Radio, that aired over Christmas and the New Year. With the entire staff now back in the building, Estrella is looking forward to sharing space with unmasked audience members, pointing out that there is nothing quite like the live experience. “For over a year, just breathing the same air has been a hazard. I can’t wait to get people in the same room again, sharing a story.”
With his new play A Lie Agreed Upon, Artistic Director Tony Estrella tackles a modern adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, beginning in September. 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick
Over the pandemic The Granite Theatre’s been busy. They presented seven “Zoom” plays as well as a production of The Belle of Amherst that was filmed on their stage for streaming. The theater underwent some significant upgrades to repair structural issues and included an extensive makeover of their lobby, which now has space for local visual artists to install their work. “We are open ten months out of the year, so there’s never time to address any significant changes,” explains Paula Brouillette, Granite Theatre’s board president. With renovations complete, the Westerly theater is looking forward to welcoming audiences back through its doors. “We all struggled with the isolation,” she says. “Now we are ready to enjoy the camaraderie of watching a play in a darkened space with audiences.”
Three iconic First Ladies share the spotlight when the Granite Theatre serves up Tea For Three: Lady Bird, Pat & Betty, beginning August 20, for the venue’s grand reopening.
1 Granite Street, Westerly
A mix of small-capacity live events and private movie screenings, as well as a clever marquis campaign, kept the Greenwich Odeum going throughout the pandemic. “It was great to have these moments of entertainment during the pandemic, but the experience just wasn’t the same,” admits Operations Manager Shana Vanderweele Ortman. By the middle of July, all events at the theater went back to normal. The Odeum team stressed that they could not have survived without community support, stating that their membership went up during COVID. “Our small screenings gave families a way to get out of the house and be together.” As important as that was to experience during the past year, audiences are hungry for things to return to normal. “We’re looking forward to giving our performers and patrons a normal experience again,” she says, “being together, enjoying performances with friends and strangers.”
After the past 18 months, we could all use a laugh. The Greenwich Odeum supplies it with one of Comedy Central's "100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time," Jim Breuer and his Freedom of Laughter tour on August 7. 59 Main Street, East Greenwich
When COVID curtailed their 2020 season, it became a waiting game in Wakefield at Theatre by the Sea. Owner and producer Bill Hanney, who calls COVID the theater’s 21-month intermission, says, “we had a few bucks in the bank” to keep the theater in tip-top shape while it was shuttered. The theater’s patrons helped keep the lights on, too. “Our audiences love this theater. Ninety-eight percent of our subscribers allowed us to change our season, not once but twice. I was overwhelmed by their generosity.” Their abbreviated summer season featured a concert series for July, but the razzle dazzle fully returns in August with Broadway’s mega-hit Mama Mia! “I can’t wait to see people in their seats, and at Gazebo before the show and during intermission. Get some singing and dancing on the stage,” he says, adding, “It’s what we do best.”
Broadway’s mega hit Mama Mia! lights up Theatre by the Sea’s historic Barn Theater from August 18 – September 5.
364 Cards Pond Road, Wakefield
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