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The Comedy and Tragedy of Theater in Rhode Island

February 23, 2011

Photo by: Joe O'Connor

On a brisk Saturday afternoon, nearly a hundred Rhode Islanders passionate about theater made the trip to The Gamm Theater in Pawtucket to hear about, what else? theater in Rhode Island.

WRNI theater critic Bill Gale set aside his sharpened pen for a friendly chat with Gamm Artistic Director Tony Estrella, arts consultant Deborah Obalil, and Trinity Rep company actors Angela Brazil and Stephen Thorne.

Each talked about the financial challenges that come with the business of theater when there are so many entertainment choices. But they all circled back to emphasize how supportive Rhode Islanders are of their local theaters.

The Gamm’s Tony Estrella elaborated on how he weaves classic and newer productions into his season line ups. He says he has a responsibility to theater and to give Rhode Island audiences something new to experience.

Deborah Obalil consults arts groups across the country, which gives her some perspective on what’s happening here, and she’s seeing a winnowing down in arts organizations. She thinks this will lead to more collaboration in the arts, something that’s already happening here with theaters loaning each other props and costumes.

Concerns were raised that theater faces too much competition from an on-demand world where movies, television shows, and video games come to you without ever having to leave your home.

But Mixed Magic Theater’s Ricardo Pitts-Wiley was in the audience, and he made a good point during the discussion session that the theater community needs to look no farther than Gillette Stadium to see that people will get up off the couch. He says the theater world should take a page out of the NFL playbook and figure out how to create an infrastructure of hype and tradition – think ESPN pre-game shows and tailgating. (Perhaps Bill Gale could fashion himself as the Howard Cosell of theater performances.)

Actors Angela Brazil and Stephen Thorne also teach in the theater department at Clark University, and they’re encouraged by the collaboration their students are eager to embrace. This is very different, says Brazil, from the culture when she was in college where actors worried mostly about their own improvements. This collaboration, the couple says, is playing out among theaters in Rhode Island and part of what makes the community so strong.

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