There’s an alchemy to putting together a theater season and Tony Estrella, artistic director of The Gamm Theatre, is well attuned to that magic. “I think of seasons like a record album, where the songs are sequenced for a reason,” he says. “I want that same connection for the season, where the plays speak to each other. I want resonance for the subscriber, for us all to be in this collective headspace.”
In the spacious Gamm lobby, it’s incredible to think that this established and thriving Warwick theater has its roots on the fringe. A group of artists who grew out of Trinity Rep founded Alias Stage, the precursor to The Gamm, which was structured as an intense artist collective. Bold and adventurous, they leaned into the intimacy between actor and audience. It was a production of Antony and Cleopatra in a garage on Elbow Street that put the fledgling company on the map.
Fittingly, their season opener, Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night – which bundles 90 years of Russian history in one play – feels as audacious as doing Shakespeare in a car port. Estrella explains that the play was a last-minute addition to the season, one he didn’t think about until Russia invaded Ukraine.
“It rang a bell in my head about this great play.” Estrella leans forward, his whole body kinetic as he describes the play. “It’s dealing with these characters like [Isaac] Babel and Putin, but what it’s really about is how we manufacture truth, politically, and the play posits a kind of conspiracy theory that is very attractive, but factually, as far as we know, untrue. So how do we draw the line between fiction and reality? It’s increasingly hard, right? What theater can do, what art can do, is help contextualize this.”
The second play in their season, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat, was the pre-pandemic play that got away. A topical look at America’s economic decline through the lens of a community of blue-collar factory workers whose lives are ripped apart by layoffs, it felt apropos for the birthplace of the industrial revolution. But The Gamm’s original request was declined, with the rights going to Trinity Rep. However, that production was curtailed by the pandemic.
When it came time for The Gamm to plot out this year’s season, Estrella saw the rights to the play were back on the table, so he folded it into the season. “[Trinity Rep] has precedent, as they should; the playwright needs to get the biggest audience possible,” says Estrella. “But we’re fighting from this smaller theater perspective.” This means Estrella keeps his eye on original work from more far-flung locales, particularly Great Britain. “Every morning, the first thing I do is read The Guardian theater section,” he says with a laugh.
The second half of the season has that anglophile bent. Estrella considers The Faith Healer, by the Northern Irish dramatist Brian Friel, a sort of seasonal shift, moving from the topicality of Russia and fading factory towns to a play that weaves a more pensive, but no less spellbinding, story. In interlocking monologues, a traveling healer and his companions recount a tragic night. “It’s like a four-part symphony,” says Estrella, who considers it a ghost story, one that commands the audience to sit back and listen. “I think it gets to the mythic roots of storytelling, and why we need live theater,” he says. “There’s a fundamental thing in us that needs to try to understand [life’s] complexities on a deeper level.”
The penultimate play in the season, Let the Right One In, is an adaptation of the horror novel-turned-cult-classic independent movie that premiered off-West End in London before transferring to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, where it created a mini-sensation, not the least of which was because of the amount of blood spilled on stage. (It is a vampire tale, after all.) Jack Thorne, who went on to pen Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway as well as His Dark Materials for Netflix, adapted it.
“I’m not the biggest horror movie fan in the world, but there’s something about that play that gets underneath your skin and moves you to your core in kind of an eternal way,” says Estrella. It’s also a complicated bit of stagecraft, that calls not only for copious amounts of blood but a heart-pounding scene that involves plenty of water. “We’re coming up with an exciting way to do it that hopefully will surprise people.”
Playwright Thorne’s Harry Potter faced off with Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, which wraps up The Gamm’s season, for the Tony Award for Best Play back in 2018. (For the record, “the boy who lived” won.) Set at the end of a nuclear disaster, the play is a three-hander whose small cast belies its oversized impact.
That could serve as a metaphor for The Gamm. “I think that’s part of our identity as a theater,” Estrella says. “One does that kind of work – meaning bold, certainly provocative – with all the complexity intact and a nice variety of plays that are surprising.”
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