The Communities Theater
In its heydey The Stadium Theater was the hub for entertainment in downtown Woonsocket. Vacant and deteriorating for years, a group of volunteers helped bring the building back to life in 2001. With a vibrant lineup of concerts, community theater performances and educational programs, theater officials have turned their attention to a new project: the renovation of an adjacent 30,000-square-foot building dubbed The Stadium Theater Conservatory that will provide much-needed space for artists. Jim Hummel takes us inside.
Announcer: ``Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to The Stadium Theater Performing Arts Center. Wwould you please welcome to the stage: the Everly Brothers Experience featuring the Zbed brothers and The Bird Dogs band.’’
Last weekend The Stadium Theater in Woonsocket was a busy place - as it is most weekends these days. Friday night it was a tribute band on a national tour making its only stop in Rhode Island.
Saturday night country music singer Sara Evans played to a packed house - all 1,088 seats in what is both a spacious and intimate setting.
The Stadium - as most call it - will hold 175 events this year alone, up from 100 annually just five years ago. They range from concerts like these, to community theater productions, o children’s performances, like this one that was the culmination of a week-long theater camp during April school vacation week. The shows are as different as Arlo Guthrie and Ed Asner.
Levesque: ``Our shows are constantly changing, our expansion is constantly changing and if you are not changing you will die.’’
Cathy Levesque knows. She became the CEO and executive director of the Stadium Theater Performing Arts Center 15 years ago, working as its marketing director before that. She has seen a total transformation of the 91-year-old building, which when it opened in 1926 had three shows a day - every day.
Levesque: ``It was the place to go for newsreels, for vaudeville, full orchestra, Arthur Fielder and the Pops performed here, it was the place to be, the place to go.’’
But when the multiplex cinemas came the crowds disappeared and the building fell into disrepair.
Levesque: ``It was covered in taupe paint, the seats were torn, it was pretty rough. It didn’t look anything like it does today.’’
In the 1990s, a group wanting to resurrect the building held a marathon fundraiser under the familiar marquee, hoping to raise $1,380 - the call letters of a local radio station. It netted $25,000 and the renovation began.
Levesque: ``It gave this small group of individuals the kick they needed to say, you know what I think we can do this.’’
Over the next decade dozens of volunteers pitched in to restore the historic building. And it’s those volunteers who today are an indispensible part of the Stadium’s operations.
Hummel: ``You wouldn’t survive without the volunteers, would you?’’
Levesque: ``No question the volunteers are the backbone of this organization, It’s incredible, they take this job very serious, whether they’re a bartender, TIP certified, whether they are an usher and they’re giving out program books or showing someone where to sit; our tech crew is second to none, they do it because they love to be part of something bigger than themselves.’’
When the renovations were completed in 2001, the public got to see a stunning building, true to its original architecture, but with some modern touches. Performers and patrons alike have the same reaction.
Levesque: ``They always say `wow’ - they always do, from the murals, the fountains, the seating style, the curtains and you feel it, it’s like a pulse., It’s not empty. When you’re standing on the stage when you’re standing in the theater there’s something that you feel is alive.’’
Pezza: ``It was fun, it was big, it was beautiful, it was opulent, it was one of the nicer buildings in Woonsocket.’’
Michelle Pezza also came here as a child. Pezza was hired three years ago when the non-profit Stadium Theater Foundation bought this vacant building adjacent to the theater, with a specific purpose in mind.
Hummel: ``When you walked into that building for the first time, what did you think?’’
Pezza: ``Oh my goodness. It was…’’
Hummel: ``Did you see the diamond in the rough or not?’’
Pezza: ``I thought to myself `wow, how am I going to make a difference here’? It was so much that needed to be done.
As director of development, Pezza’s job is to help raise the $4 million needed to renovate the 30,000-square-foot, five-story Stadium Theater Conservatory. They’re about halfway to the fundraising goal.
Already the conservatory building allows the theater to store costumes in this massive room on the basement floor instead of off-site. They are sorted and carefully catalogued, readily accessible when needed. After the renovations are complete, the costumes will move up to the third floor and this space will be converted to a 150-seat theater for smaller shows. There will also be room to build and store sets and for much-needed administrative offices.
Hummel: ``When it’s done and completed, what does that allow you to do that you’re not doing now?’’
Levesque: ``Be more efficient; right now we’re building sets, we’re building costumes here, there and everywhere. he bulk of it’s being done on first floor, but it’s tough when you don’t have rehearsal space. Every single individual who has a job here and those who will be hired, will have an office and have space to do what they do best and have space for volunteers to come in and sew, and comein and help build sets.’’
Hummel: ``It sounds like the space is going to do your talent justice.’’
Levesque: ``There’s no question.’’
But it’s not just the performances. The Stadium began offering educational programs about a decade ago.
Over April vacation we watched children rehearsing on the grand stage, in a recently-converted marquee room where smaller shows and events are held, and even out in the lobby because space is tight.
All week the children practiced for a show on Friday morning that capped a week of theater camp - with friends and family filling the entire lower half of the theater to watch the performance on the big stage. The Stadium will hold three two-week summer sessions during June, July and August.
Pezza: ``Some come in a little shyer than others, but the come in and if they don’t already have a friend here at the camp they’re waiting to meet their first friend, they’re learning all these performing arts techniques and things like that. And by the time they get to the stage performance, they’ve really blossomed. Their self-confidence has grown.’’
Levesque: ``And it’s not just about, I’m going to be Brittany Spears someday. It’s not about that. Even if you just participate for a year, maybe two years, maybe three, maybe 10 you are going to be more eloquent in your speech, you’re going to be able to communicate better, it doesn’t matter if it’s to your boss, to your instructor, to your wife, to your children. You’re a better communicator, you’re a better team player.’’
Harris: ``You get them here once and they’re going to come back again. It’s an infectious place.’’
Jordan Harris became the Stadium’s marketing manager eight years ago.
Harris: ``I think most people when they come and see the theater for the first time they say `Wow I have to keep coming back here.’”
Harris says the variety of shows - and prices - appeals to patrons, most of whom come from outside of Woonsocket, many from southern Massachusetts and nearby Connecticut.
Harris: ``We have different genres; we comedies, we have musicals, we have concerts. Rock concerts, classic concerts, we have ballet, we have dance. We have pretty much anything you can think of. We even have drag shows. We have tribute concerts where the ticket prices are $21 to $36, and then we’ve got Arlo Guthrie coming and I think his top end ticket is $76. We actually don’t market the theater. We don’t buy advertising just to sell the theater. And you could, it’s beautiful, right? You could sell this theater on its own, but what we do is sell the shows, because each show requires a different audience.’’
And then there’s the community theater performances. We were there to watch both a rehearsal and performance of Young Frankenstein.
Harris: ``All of our community theater, those are local people with full-time jobs. But you wouldn’t know it when you came here and saw them perform. And we’re giving them this awesome venue in which to really take their passion and show it off.’’
Levesque: ``There’s a passion for something that they loved when they were in their youth and they continue to want to do that and our patrons benefit by that, our business community benefits by that, all of us benefit by that.’’
The Stadium still needs to raise money to complete the conservatory. But making progress and watching the vision turn into reality is helping attract donors. Pezza says a private foundation wanting to remain anonymous has come on board with support now that the building renovations are turning a corner.
Pezza: ``It was a little challenging getting people to buy in in the early stage, but now it seems a little easier.’’
Levesque says the building may have changed, but the mission has remained very much the same from the time the theater was built nearly a century ago.
Levesque: ``The draw was people wanted to go somewhere and forget about what was going on in their lives. And that never changes. Whether it was 1926, 1950, if you have programming that’s affordable, high caliber - people want to get out, they want something to do with their daughter, their son , their husband, their wife, their guy friends, they need something to do. It helps the soul it helps the spirit.’’
Pezza: ``That’s the best part of a community, especially a community like Woonsocket, who unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot of wonderful community gathering places. And the Stadium has become, I think, to this community. Not just because of the performances that happen on stage - certainly because of that because it’s a wonderful draw - but I think people just feel uplifted when they come here.’’
Harris: ``I oftentimes say that we’re not a community theater - even though we host community theater shows - we are the community’s theater because everybody who comes here leaves taking a little bit with it, taking a little bit of the theater with them.’’
In Woonsocket, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.