A struggling non-profit community theater relocated - and reinvented - itself four years ago with a simple mission: to give back to the community. This month Jim Hummel profiles the Academy Players, which has raised thousands of dollars for charities, other non-profit organizations and people in need. He finds they’re not only surviving - but thriving.
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The energy level is high this Wednesday night in February as three dozen kids head into their final rehearsal of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.
They’ve been practicing for nearly two months; but with opening night now on the immediate horizon there’s the usual mix of excitement, anticipation and jitters during the tech rehearsal.
The kids are members of the Academy Players, the longtime theater company from East Greenwich that moved to Providence four years ago.
A group of adult actors is next door getting for another play in a couple of weeks.
Rita: We reinvented ourselves. We all sat down, I called everybody I knew who was proficient in the arts.’’
Rita Maron was the catalyst for the move. She has a dance and choreography background and taught theater in both public and private schools. Her vision for a rejuvenated Academy was simple: a non-profit community theater that gives back to the community.
Right beside her: Rita’s daughter Chelsea - who came back to Rhode Island after graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a theater degree. That wasn’t the original game plan, but Chelsea couldn’t pass up the opportunity of working with her mom on a creative new initiative: The Stage Door Project.
Every performance Academy puts on raises money for other non-profit organizations or people in need - about 20 a year - and has brought in thousands of dollars over the past four years.
Chelsea: ``I fell in love with the community aspect, I fell in love with doing this with my mother, doing the theater with her, it’s just been an amazing thing to do.’’
The Academy Players had been a fixture in East Greenwich since 1956, performing at Swift Gym for years, then moving to the Varnum Armory on Main Street. But Academy was struggling and in 2010 Rita made a pitch to move it to a complex of buildings owned by her husband’s construction company on the Providence/Johnston line.
The central location made geographic sense, and they had more space - including the main theatre, a practice room and storage area down the hall, and a separate dance company next door, where the kids gathered before the opening night of Charlie Brown.
While the play had its eight-night run over two weeks in the main theater, a separate crew was in the practice studio rehearsing Plaza Suite, which would open several weeks after Charlie Brown ended its run.
In fact within hours on closing night, Rita and the crew were busy transforming the theater with a fresh coat of paint and bringing in furniture for Plaza Suite.
The Marons underwrite the cost of the space and have a built-in construction crew for set design. And Rita’s husband Tom is right there with his wife and daughter, at times manning the concession stand during performances.
Rita: ``Owning a business in what we do helps a lot too because we’re touched by many different facets in the commercial construction area, they’re always willing to help. The blue collar, the white collar, whatever. They’re always willing to help.’’
While most of the plays are staged here at the compound, the relocated Academy Players started big, as Rita likes to say, in 2011 - performing The Wedding Singer at the Park Cinema in Cranston as a fundraiser for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.
Since then dozens of people and organizations have been the beneficiaries of Academy’s fundraising efforts. It’s a dizzying array and speaks to the need the theater is helping meet. The first night of each performance benefits KJ Ricci of North Providence, Rita’s cousin who has leukemia and a bone disorder.
Rita: ``He is near and dear to Academy’s heart and when we started doing this we vowed that every opening night would be designated to him until he’s on stage with us.’’
And when KJ couldn’t come to a performance, the cast has gone to him. Rita says it has had a profound effect on some of the kids.
Rita: ``It would help teach them passion and compassion on and off the stage. It gave them something to strive for with conviction. Doing Beauty and the Beast, doing Annie, doing You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown - these kids can come in and really do a phenomenal job, but when you add a care or a cause to it - it changes the aspect, at least that’s what we’ve found.’’
It’s not a model, though, that Chelsea learned about at college.
Chelsea: ``I went to school to learn how to be a successful thespian, I guess, in the theatre and to make money. They didn’t really talk about the charity end, it was very - this is how you build your business and this is how you do it right. And I think we’re doing that, but I love having the charity end on board.’’
It was Chelsea who coined the phrase: Stage Door Project.
Chelsea: ``The stage door is the portal from the real world to the theater world. People wait around the stage door to go see the stars that come out, people wait around the stage door to enter the theater and I look at it as a portal from the outside world to the inside of the theater world and we put it together.’’
Chelsea is the stage manager, organizing schedules for the kids and adults, leaving the directing to her mom. Chelsea is also a professional photographer and takes all the cast pictures on the wall for each show - and promotional shoots for all of the plays.
Chelsea: ``And the fact that we’re in the public eye, the public knows us. We use our theater as advertisement for the charity. What better way to show people a charity or to show people someone in need than to do it through something as public as us, as public as a theater.’’
Rita: ``It costs nothing for us to do that. We’re a nonprofit, we have to pay our bills and in the end that’s it, we’re all volunteers, so to have a blueprint of something like this where you’re partnering with other different charities, all you’re doing is hosting.’’
To draw an audience and the resulting financial support means Academy has to put on a level of production that will keep people coming back - and draw patrons beyond the cast families and charity recipients.
The goals are quality theater and a laboratory for the actors.
Rita: ``It’s not just a performance venue. When you come here and you work with us you learn, you learn about the music, you learn what key you’re going to be singing in, you know the pitch, you know the history, the clarity of this role.’’
Chelsea: ``I wanted to run the theater as if it was almost professional. I wanted to put on great shows with high expectation and I wanted to use my degree and my background to be able to help provide that.’’
Like any theater, closing night is always bittersweet.
Hummel: ``As you sit there on opening night, or maybe on closing night, and you see the curtain call, what goes through your mind?’’
Rita: Uhhh. Some days I’m not cut for this job because I get emotionally attached with everybody and that’s one of the most difficult things to break. On a closing night when I know that I won’t be seeing these people regularly or that they’re doing the show for someone else, my heart breaks. I get so attached to these people.’’
While making a difference inside and outside the theater.
Rita: ``It makes me feel good that I’m doing something good with people’s talents.’’
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.