After years of performing at different venues, the Contemporary Theater Co. has found a permanent home in downtown Wakefield, and local tourism and business organizations believe the move is of significant importance to the revitalization of the South Kingstown village.
On Jan. 10, the theater company announced plans to expand into a space at 323 Main St., known for years locally as the home of the Hera Gallery. The company will also keep their existing studio at South County Commons, where the nonprofit will expand its programming. The studio opened in April 2010.
The venue is being renovated to accommodate 90 patrons and will include a lobby, a new entrance, new utilities, workspaces and handicapped-accessible restrooms added by property owners Carl and Kenneth Tetzner. The footprint of the single-story, 1,800-square-foot building will remain unchanged. Ultimately, their plan is to overhaul other buildings on the property, adding retail space and expanding Phil’s Restaurant, a local landmark. Their grand opening is slated for July 6, with the Rhode Island premiere of the farce “Is He Dead?” by Mark Twain.
“It’s a very exciting step for us,” said Christopher J. Simpson, the group’s founder and artistic director. The CTC was named the best theater company in 2011 by The Providence Phoenix. “We’ve had a really good streak lately, and we think this is the step to take to further solidify those successes.”
Myrna George, president of the South County Tourism Council, views the theater company’s acquisition of a new and permanent facility as a substantial asset. “Anytime we can offer the opportunity for live theater, I think that enlarges our repertoire of engagement when people visit,” she said. “We commonly go out to trade shows and are often marketing what can be done during the shoulder seasons, and theater is among many of our charms.”
George said South County has many theater groups, including the seasonal Theatre By the Sea and the Granite Theatre in Westerly. The East Greenwich Odeum is scheduled to reopen in March, having received a Champlin Foundations grant in December.
“For people visiting the area staying at our coastline or countryside, this is to our advantage. Many people come here for the scenic beauty, so to add to our ability to offer theater is another jewel in our crown,” she said.
The Contemporary Theater Co. began in 2005, spending its first three years performing at the Courthouse Center for the Arts. Since then it has played a variety of venues, including the Narragansett Towers, South Kingstown High School and the Kingston Free Library. The theater company will still make occasional appearances at these venues for special performances but is looking forward to a reliable home base.
“Our goal is to have a significant art space in Wakefield,” Simpson said.
The theater gives them the ability to increase their operation, from 24 weekends per year to 40 – 45 weekends. One advantage is for longer performance runs. In other circumstances it will allow the company to collaborate with other performance artists, including small performing groups, dance groups and singer/songwriters, allowing them to take advantage of the venue. “There are so many great artists in South Kingstown, in South County and in Rhode Island who don’t always get the best opportunities to perform,” Simpson said.
Most of the company’s revenue is dedicated to putting on shows, with some members being paid a stipend the equivalent of gas money. Funds, however, have also been set aside to pay expenses such as rent for the venues. Performances of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” and “The Foreigner” will complete the summer season. They have presented 33 productions since their inception.
Attendance to each production has significantly increased with each passing year. Membership fluctuates based on the size and frequency of shows, but Simpson estimates the total number of those involved at one time or another at about 250. Its regular membership has gone from 25 members in 2005 to about 75 this year.
“It’s a little bittersweet,” said Rep. Teresa Ann Tanzi, D-Narragansett, who is also a member of the Wakefield Downtown Merchants Association. “Hera Gallery has been a mainstay in the downtown area. Their displacement has been difficult for some members of the art community. The fact that CTC is moving in there, however, is a good thing. There’s a revival that’s going on down here and it’s getting more stable every day.”
As for the Hera Gallery, the nonprofit, artist-run arts organization is still looking for a new home. “We are adamant in our desire to stay in South County,” said Director Islay Taylor. The group has looked at several locations but its future home remains uncertain. With most of their funding originating from private supporters and state grants, their choices are limited. Taylor stressed that the gallery would indeed reopen and that three of the gallery’s members were awarded grants from the R.I. State Council on the Arts in December.
Tanzi said the association still emphasizes that members of the community buy locally and CTC will add to that experience, giving residents another good reason to stay downtown. The theater will also draw in nonresidents, such as other members of the art community and tourists.