Though small in size, Rhode Island is generally considered a powerhouse in terms of local theatre. It serves as home base for an impressive array of theatre groups, some which have been around for decades. Many, especially here in Providence, are fortunate enough to have lifelong members who remain passionate about the arts and who have a personal interest in keeping their traditions alive.
Actor Sam Babbitt moved to Rhode Island in 1983 and over the years has participated passionately in plays at many of these venues: the Gamm Theatre (as one of their resident actors), Newgate Theatre, Perishable Theatre and Barker Playhouse. He’s been a part of the Pawtucket Community Players, the East Greenwich Academy Players and Trinity Rep, as Marley’s ghost. After almost three decades of plying his trade here, the Benefit Street resident was happy to share his thoughts on the local theatre scene: its past, present and future.
As an active member of the board at Barker Playhouse, and third-generation actress in the local theatre circuit, I personally was delighted to sit down with Babbitt over coffee to discuss the changes he’s noticed over the course of his long acting career. “My first reaction would be to say that audiences are getting older,” says Babbitt, and it’s true.
Years ago, local playhouses were actually turning away members and creating waiting lists; some groups even required letters of recommendation from active members to join. The people committing to theatres in those days are still around, loyal as ever, but nowadays most groups are more concerned with attracting new people to their spaces. It is more difficult today, explains Babbitt, what with movies, shopping and a vibrant nightlife creating a slew of competition for an evening’s activity. Plus, there are all the new home entertainment options as well.
Babbitt says that the downsizing of audiences has had an impact on the shows being chosen: “For financial reasons, theatres have had to choose ‘safe’ plays that they know are going to fill the seats, usually light shows that have had successful runs. They do a nice job and it is what it is – but it is not as interesting, or as demanding, or as involving as theatre, in my view, can and should be.”
The price paid to attract audiences is what Babbitt describes as a loss of artistic integrity. In a misplaced attempt to just fill seats, the quality and complexity of the offerings are often compromised. Babbitt would like to see more shows that make audiences think and be engaged in the subject matter, rather than just providing passive amusement. They may make you mad, shock you, or say things that you don’t want to hear, but this can be done in a way that is honest. If the plays are well-written and the actors are capable, the productions will still entertain you, whether they’re presented aggressively or not.
So how do we bring in younger audiences and grow the theatre community? Babbitt believes that local theatres need to change the concept of a visit to the theatre into a full night on the town. “All the people who talk about marketing local venues, talk about the necessity to think about parking, where people are going to eat, and what snacks they can get at the theatre itself. It’s not just about going to see the play, it’s about the whole experience and having a play in the middle of it.” This idea – the whole experience – makes sense to Babbitt. Establishments such as Trinity are particularly fortunate in that there are so many great restaurants nearby, but for places with a less ideal location this becomes an obstacle that requires some imaginative thinking to overcome.
One recent positive development, suggests Babbitt, is that local schools increasingly see the need for exposure to live theatre. He has noted more local high schools coming to see the recent production of Hamlet at the Gamm and reflects on that: “For a whole bunch of the kids, it was the first time they’ve ever been in a theatre and seen a live production. I think they were blown away.” He was amazed to see high school students laughing and crying along with the play’s protagonist and discovering how much “magic” could be created in a small and simple space.
Even when local theatre is successful at attracting larger and more diverse audiences, the problem of ongoing funding and infrastructure still remain. Operations do require money, but if it’s done right it can be a good investment. However, Babbitt says (of government aid), “I think it’s pretty unrealistic that there is going to be any big support from municipalities given the current economy.” So the trick is to use what money is at hand wisely. In recent years, many community playhouses have been spending to bring in salaried artistic directors who can up the ante and create a more professional experience. They can help with marketing while also attracting outside performers who want to be a part of something challenging. And suddenly there’s a buzz.
When asked about the importance of theatre to the community, Babbitt is eager to see more people get involved with more than just acting. There’s a wonderful difference, he notes, “between just being a passive receiver of a project and being a participant in the helping create the experience. If you get an enthusiastic group of people who are interested in the acting end of it, that is absolutely essential; but if you’re talking about long term survival (of community theatre) it’s not going to work because there ends up being no ‘there’ there.”
Babbitt concludes by emphasizing that there is an incredibly wide range of activities for lovers of theatre to get themselves involved in. You may suffer from stage fright, but lending a hand with sets, learning how to run lights, helping with marketing and lending support backstage are always welcomed. Local theatre groups are a great way to get involved in something or learn a new skill, and it can be incredibly rewarding. Babbitt only had one thing to say about his acting experience: “I loved every minute of it, truly.”