Theater Preview: Something for Everyone — How Providence-Area Stages are Surviving, Post-Pandemic

By Bob Abelman

Providence-area professional theaters have fared better than most in terms of surviving and rebounding from the pandemic.

An empty Gamm Theatre. Photo: Peter Goldberg

The arts were decimated in the wake of COVID-19. Since the initial shuttering of venues in March 2020, it has been reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that over 1.4 million arts related jobs nationwide were lost. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Business Pulse Survey, arts, entertainment, and recreation enterprises are among the most likely to take longer to recover from the pandemic due to the in-person nature of their programming.

“To non-theater lovers,” wrote actor Joel Grey in an opinion piece in The New York Times shortly after the worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, “lamenting the closing of Broadway in the face of so much widespread suffering may seem, at best, frivolous. But for many of us, this tragedy has been made that much more devastating by having to face the nightmare without the laughter, tears, and sense of community that a night in the theater delivers.”

Since the shutdown, Broadway has nearly bounced back to pre-COVID levels.  The total gross for the 2022-2023 season reached nearly $1.6 billion, which is a marked improvement from the previous two seasons but still below the pre-pandemic total of $1.8 billion in 2018-2019, according to new data from the Broadway League. Attendance reached 12.3 million, above the previous two years’ totals but also below the 14.8 million in 2018-2019.

But elsewhere, particularly among the nation-wide network of professional non-profit theaters, too many permanent closures have been announced and numerous attempts at reopening were stalled by Delta and Omicron variant surges.  And this year, as most theaters offer a full season of productions for the first time since the pandemic, there have been significant layoffs at New York City’s Public Theater and Dallas Theater Center among others, pauses in programming at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company to name a few, and emergency fundraising at theaters that include Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Westport Country Playhouse.  Off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theaters are also struggling, with ArtsJournal citing the combined effects of smaller audiences, shifting philanthropic patterns, rising wages and costs, and labor shortages.

A balancing act

Providence-area professional theaters have fared better than most in terms of surviving and rebounding from the pandemic.  Local artistic and executive directors, who have been interviewed for this article, credit several factors.

One is that Providence-area theaters were particularly proactive in their pursuit of financial assistance to stay afloat during the pandemic.  In 2021, for example, many obtained a piece of the $16.25 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) that was established by Congress late last year.  Others were fortunate to get a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan and some money from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, and the Rhode Island Foundation.

Assassins at The Gamm Theatre opened March 5, 2020 and closed on March 20 due to COVID. Photo: Peter Goldberg

But the most significant factor, suggests Trinity Rep Executive Director Kate Liberman, is that the local theater scene is “a well-balanced artistic ecosystem.” A variety of professional venues – including a provider of Broadway shows on tour, a Tony Award-winning League of Resident Theatre (LORT) member, companies that can accommodate Equity contracts for cast and crew, and a few small, scrappy houses where everyone in front of and behind the proscenium arch gets some payment or share of the ticket sales – coexists here.

Many have been a part of this community for years, which is another contributor to their survival.  Trinity Rep – the above mentioned LORT company – was first established in 1964 and Warwick’s Gamm Theatre – a mid-sized company operating out of “larger and larger garages,” notes Artistic Director Tony Estrella – is enjoying its 39th season.  They help anchor a sense of stability within the local theater community that is often hard to find elsewhere.  Although there is no centralized, downtown cluster of theaters – like Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, Chicago’s Loop, and Boston’s Theater District – the Providence Performance Arts Center (PPAC) has been bringing theatergoers downtown for more than 45 years, which has no doubt fed other area theaters.

Interestingly, many of these theaters’ movers and shakers, including Burbage Theatre’s Artistic Director Jeff Church,  graduated from a theater program at the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College.  Some, including Gamm’s Estrella, went through Brown University/Trinity Rep’s graduate conservatory training program.  Others, such as Mixed Magic Theatre’s co-founder Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, were past members of Trinity Rep’s company.  As such, they tend to have their fingers on the pulse of Rhode Island/New England sensibilities, program their seasons accordingly, and look to hire locally for their productions.

Despite its relatively small size and homegrown brain trust, the Providence-area theater scene is artistically diverse and offers something for everyone.

“We do epic stories in an intimate space,” notes Estrella, with Edward Albee’s masterful three-act play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? up next (Jan. 25 – Feb. 18) at the Gamm.

Church recognizes Pawtucket-based Burbage Theatre Company’s brand as the area’s “irreverent theater company,” which has been “telling compelling, socially relevant stories” for the past 12 years.  Case in point: Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**ker with the Hat – a “high-octane verbal cage match about love and addiction,” says – has been scheduled for later in the season (May 23 – June 16).

Says Providence-based Wilbury Theatre Group’s Founder/Artistic Director Josh Short, “our productions reflect a hearts-and-bones passion, biting humor, brave experimentalism, and signature idealism.”  They are also inspired by the collaborative process demonstrated by their namesake, the super rock group The Traveling Wilburys, where the likes of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison put aside their respective egos to focus on the collaborative process of making art. This will be on display in Wilbury’s next production, Taylor Mac’s shyly subversive black comedy Hir ​(Jan. 18 – Feb. 4).

In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play at Burbage Theatre, which closed due to COVID 30 minutes before the first preview on March 12, 2020. Photo: Maggie Hall

According to its mission statement, Trinity Rep provides eclectic, bold, and original theater intended to “reinvent the public square with dramatic art that stimulates, educates, and engages our diverse community in a continuing dialogue.”  Its upcoming production of Orlando Hernández’s La Broa’ (Broad Street) is inspired by the history of the Latinx community in Rhode Island (Jan. 18 – Feb. 18).

South Kingstown’s Theatre by The Sea’s long-term success and ability to survive and recover from the pandemic, notes owner Bill Hanney, is grounded in a full summer stock line-up of classic Broadway musicals – a known and highly popular commodity.  This season opens with one of the longest running shows on Broadway, A Chorus Line (May 29 – June 22).

While Theatre by The Sea offers Broadway classics, the Providence Performing Arts Center “shares sparkling Broadway gems” – the most outstanding and brilliant shows to have been staged on Broadway in recent years – says J.L. “Lynn” Singleton, President and CEO of PPAC.  Moulin Rouge: The Musical is currently on stage and runs through Dec. 31.

Pawtucket’s Mixed Magic Theatre was founded in 2000 and presents a season of three plays during six months of each year.  The creed of the company has always been “First think diverse” with an emphasis of staging works by and with artists of color for audiences of color. The performance space was undergoing repairs during the pandemic, reopened briefly in 2021, and it is undergoing repairs once again.  It is hoping to begin a new season of shows, says Artistic Director Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, in early 2024.

Because of its seasonal nature, Theatre by the Sea was already dark when the pandemic closed most venues with productions in progress, Its 2019 staging of Saturday Night Fever was the theater’s final production until reopening with a full season in 2022. Photo: Steven Richard Photography

Teatro ECAS, under Francis Parra’s artistic direction, is the premier Latinx theater in New England, presenting classic and contemporary works by Hispanic playwrights in Spanish with English subtitles. Two plays were in rehearsals when COVID hit: La Dama Duende (The Phantom Lady) by Pedro Calderone de la Barca, and Soltero, Casado, Viudo y Divorciado (Single, Married, Widowed and Divorced) by Roman Sarmentero.

Billed as a captivating play about magic and destiny, La Ternura (Tenderness) by Alfredo Sanzol, has been announced for later this season (March 21-31).

 Compromises and new considerations

Survival is one thing but post-pandemic sustainability is another.

Across the country, rising costs are a top concern for theaters, according to survey results from the national organization Theatre Communications Group.  “Labor and materials are affected very much by inflation,” said Teresa Eyring, executive director of the TCG. “There’s also just an increasing need to make salaries and wages more competitive perhaps than they have been, because there’s been an enormous amount of transition in the theater field.”

All Providence-area theaters that make their own art share this concern and feel the pain.  Now more than ever, it is essential that they get rears in the tiers by maintaining the subscription base they have cultivated over the years and attracting show-specific audiences to their doors.

A Tale of Two Cities at Trinity Rep opened on Feb. 20, 2020 but was closed due to COVID on March 20 before completing its run. Photo: Mark Turek

Thus far, these theaters report that subscription levels have been down compared to before the pandemic, but they have been rising every year since.  General attendance has been down as well, with too many subscribers and more casual theatergoers still hesitant to return to live theater.  Only Theatre by the Sea and PPAC, with their lineups of Broadway musicals, seem to be pandemic proof in this regard, though PPAC Director of Marketing P.J. Prokop reports that many productions that went on tour before the pandemic hit are no longer in play due to the attrition of talent and the rising cost of production and transportation.

“Since the pandemic,” notes Trinity Rep’s Liberman, “our biggest competition has not been our friends at [local theaters]; it’s been Netflix and Hulu, and we need to find art that is compelling enough to get people off their couches to see it.”

Trinity Rep’s response was opening its 2023-2024 season with two shows in repertory with the common theme of the Salem witch trials, made popular by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  They were Talene Monahon’s The Good John Proctor and Sarah Ruhl’s Becky Nurse of Salem.  And this year’s A Christmas Carol, a long-standing holiday tradition, was adapted with the pandemic in mind.  Says Stephen Thorne, director of this year’s production, “I just feel like after the pandemic, we cannot get enough joy. The joy in this play is not the kind of thin, instant gratification joy, but the kind of actual joy that comes from the beauty of living.”

Other Providence-area companies aimed at being more cost efficient. Some, like Wilbury, are scheduling fewer plays coupled with pay-what-you-can ticket prices to inspire attendance.  Others are offering plays that require smaller casts and limited sets, such as Burbage Theatre’s BLKS by Aziza Barnes. Theatre by the Sea is hoping to bring back shows cancelled in 2020 for which sets have already been built.  In 2021, they briefly brought back Mamma Mia!

Miss You Like Hell at The Wilbury Theatre Group opened March 12, 2020 and closed after four performances and good reviews due to COVID. Photo: Erin X. Smithers

Several theaters reopened with gripping, royalty-free original works written by local or in-house playwrights, including Gamm’s A Lie Agreed Upon (a timely rewrite of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People) by the theater’s artistic director Estrella, Teatro ECA’s Impacto Desproporcionado, by the theater’s artistic director Parra, and Mixed Magic’s A Kwanzaa Song by the company’s co-founder.  “Local playwrights, local actors, and local themes will pretty much be our focus in 2024,” says Mixed Magic’s artistic director Pitts-Wiley.

Some theaters have also begun changing their show times. Shows that previously started at 8 p.m. often begin now at 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. in an effort to entice older audiences back to the theater and to make working conditions better for theater artists.

In addition to productions, many area theater organizations provide community outreach and educational programming and several administrators said participation is back to pre-pandemic levels. PPAC, for example, offers Disney Musicals in Schools, ARTS Showcase, From Books to Broadway, Next Stop BROADWAY®, and others. In addition to the general educational benefits for students, the programs pay teaching artists, expose families to area theaters, and hopefully inspire the next generation of theatergoers and theater artists.

Moving forward

As theaters continue to adjust to new realities, there are now new opportunities to discuss collaborations that include sharing resources like scene shops, engaging in nontraditional ways of supporting each other such as bartered cross-promotion in playbills, and engaging in creative partnerships with each other and with the immediate community that allow for greater risk-taking.

National tours were shut down before PPAC could bring to the stage the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar and the remainder of the 2019-2020 season. Photo: Matthew Murphy

“During the pandemic,” says Wilbury’s Short, “we did all kinds of crazy stuff rather than shut down”  The company engaged in outdoor productions in collaboration with WaterFire Arts Center, who had the outdoor equipment, and did productions in collaboration with local drive-in movie theaters where audiences in their cars could watch live performance with large-screen projections and listen to the audio on their radio.  “Coming out of the pandemic,” adds Short, “we are reminded to remain innovative and connected to the people around us.”

In this spirit, Trinity Rep could form some kind of promotional or pragmatic collaboration with Teatro ECAS  regarding its upcoming production of Orlando Hernández’s La Broa’ (Broad Street), which draws from the true tales of Latinx Rhode Islanders who have made this place their home.  Other area playhouses could reach out to currently stageless Mixed Magic Theater and offer a performance space to help kick-start their return to live theater.

The new year offers new production opportunities as many vintage plays and musicals enter the public domain, which means they are no longer subject to royalties.  They are also open to repurposing, remixing, revision, and reinterpretation without approval of creators’ estates, so local theaters can imbue them with their unique brand of irreverence,  brave experimentation, community engagement, and diversity-first staging.

In short, local theaters can come together and engage in conversations in ways they have not had historically or with any frequency as an industry and as a community.  Nothing says “seize the day” better than a worldwide pandemic.

Bob Abelman reviews Providence-area theater for The Boston Globe and Motif magazine. He is the former theater critic for the Austin Chronicle and the author of two theater-centric fictionalized memoirs, All The World’s a Stage Fright and its sequel, Murder, Center Stage.


  1. Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on December 19, 2023 at 9:37 am

    I agree that theaters need to seize the day. But, thus far, they seem glued to the sunset. During the COVID pandemic there was a lot of inspiring talk in the theater community about the arts contributing to a “new normal.” I can’t address the artistic quality of the Providence stage productions, but it sounds as if that city is clutching onto the “old normal” as tenaciously as Boston theater is — aside from the robust health of Providence’s smaller theater companies. In Boston, the big are getting bigger and small are either vaporizing or becoming more desperate.

    What is going on? As for programming, it is New York centric and commercial, with little that is genuinely challenging or experimental. (Theaters can say they are pushing boundaries and get away with it, partly because there are no critics to call them on it.) Aside from Shakespeare, the great dramas of the past don’t exist, perhaps because their depth points out the superficiality of many of today’s scripts. As for ‘seizing’ on contemporary political conflicts, stage companies are putting lipstick on escapism and then marketing it as adventurousness. (The giveaway: “something for everyone” is the sales mantra of streaming services like Netflix. Theaters can try to compete with that supermarket approach, but they will lose. You pull people off their couches by doing what only theater, live performance, can do).

    The value of theater productions as ‘town halls’ (the Greeks, etc) are being ignored, aside from looking at issues of identity. (There’s lots of talk about generating community, but most of the scripts have been imported for the sake of their sales-friendly New York blurbs.) A partial list of the realities that New England theater is generally ignoring seizing on: the climate crisis, the threat to democracy here and around the world, chaos in the Middle East, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and growing economic inequality. My feeling is that regional theaters, as they follow the pied piper of Broadway, will find themselves becoming increasingly homogenized.

    • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on December 22, 2023 at 3:00 pm

      Evidence of American theater’s increasing irrelevance in the face of reality:

      The New York Times‘s recent “year in climate culture” column states that “it was a year when climate change started to feel ubiquitous in popular culture. Glossy TV shows, best-selling books, art exhibits and even pop music tackled the subject, often with the kind of nuance and creativity that can help us make sense of the world’s thorniest issues.” We are given examples of books, movies, TV programs, music, exhibits, podcasts, and dance that dealt with the climate crisis. No theater … nada.

  2. Yvonne Beauregard on December 20, 2023 at 8:16 am

    Wow Bill. Sorry you feel that way. Personally, I connected with the New York Times from yesterday an interview by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins.
    “The sole purpose of everything in the theater is to create the illusion of suffering that then creates something cathartic in the audience.”
    Jacobs-Jenkins was quoting Dion Boucicault, from his essay “the art of dramatic composition”
    I’m sure you’re not surprised to know that all of us in the Rhode Island professional theater business are in an existential crisis.
    Our work supports many jobs, many artists, who, for years have forgone money and stability in order to pursue a career as an artist: actors, directors, designers, technicians, playwrights.
    We know that when we are connecting with the live audience, and hearing those gasps, those laughs and coughs and nose blowing (from crying,) that we are the place that is unique in all the world!

    • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on December 20, 2023 at 9:28 am

      Hi Yvonne:

      I am sympathetic with dramatist Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ quote — I am fond of Aristotle myself. (Though I am not sure what he would make of my favorite Greek, Euripides, who is our first absurdist.) It is the word “sole” that undercuts his sentiment. Over time, theater has served a number of purposes in a number of different cultures. “Creating something cathartic” in the audience is among a number of possibilities open to the stage. This emphasis on empathy (for want of a better word) limits theater’s potential — its ability to diagnose, to challenge, to awe, to experiment. That is part of what I am asserting … in an effort to survive by embracing the “old normal” (what’s a hit in New York), theater is narrowing itself, becoming cautious at a time that calls for imagination and political daring. There has to be a balance between doing commercial work and expanding the art of the theater.

      My quote comes from Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Theater should be a hatchet as well.

  3. Bob Abelman on December 20, 2023 at 10:34 am

    Perhaps I should have added “in their own time, in their own way” to “seize the day.” There is much to support Bill’s position about theaters not pushing thematic boundaries in their offerings, but the post-pandemic existential crisis identified by Yvonne is real and comes with no timetable or road map.

    • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on December 20, 2023 at 11:06 am

      I agree, though we need to keep in mind how the economic and technological is intertwined with the existential …

  4. Joan Lancourt on January 1, 2024 at 12:25 pm

    The Chinese word for “crisis” – Wei ji – is composed of 2 symbols: “danger” originally pictured as a man on the edge of a cliff; and “opportunity,” i.e. find the (sometimes small) opportunity that can lead away from the cliff’s edge. This “reframing” of a situation, and the collaborative exploration it can engender, can, in itself, lead us away from the danger of binaries––the either/or, the B’way or ‘challenging’, the escapist or cathartic, etc.

    It’s been fairly well established that the old subscription model is not, on its own, sustainable any longer, in part because it doesn’t fit the life style of the younger generation(S). It seems that the Providence theater scene has a number of things going for it: the mix of different sized theaters; different types of offerings; a collaborative spirit; an openness to diverse cultures, and connections to different parts of the community. All positive, but audiences are not “born”, they do not spring full blown from the head of Minerva! Audiences need to be developed, and cultivated, and engaged – from early childhood through the formative years – and despite the growth of Theater for Young Audiences (TYA-USA) the US does a not very good job of providing opportunities for such development.

    So instead of focusing on how to squeeze out 2 more subscriptions from an audience that is ‘aging out’, why not seize this opportunity for some real partnerships with the schools: creating professional theater focused on the existential crises facing the next generation – climate and democracy and race. Those are the defining issues for the next generation of audiences.

    The question we need to be asking is: What are the performing arts doing to prepare the next generation for the terrifying world we are leaving them? Not as an add on or afterthought, but as a core responsibility of all performing artists! I am just finishing a book – out this spring – on Junior Programs, Inc. a pioneer of TYA (1936-43) who saw it as their responsibility to use the performing arts to not only create the theater audiences of tomorrow, but to prepare the next generation for their responsibility to protect and sustain our democracy. They were an enormously successful touring company with a nationwide audience of 4 million children; and they saw the performing arts not solely as entertainment, though they were entertaining and then some, but as an essential element of a thriving democracy––much the way the Greeks saw theater as part of their “public square.”

    Junior Programs’ partnerships with the schools were not just focused on teaching kids about the performing arts, though they did do that as well; rather, they used their productions to foster deeper learning about a range of social and political concerns through the development of correlated curriculum units on specific issues for history, social studies, political science, science, economics, physical education, home economics, etc. Their productions were catalysts for the on-going deeper engagement in a range of experiences related to the important challenges facing society. And they did it all without dogma or preaching. They were also deeply rooted in the hundreds of communities in which they performed, tapping support from a broad array of community organizations and local leaders.

    With the sense of community that already exists in Providence and its neighboring communities, the acknowledgement that there is a performing arts ‘ecology’ (not just a string of individual theater organizations), and an openness to diversity, I’d say there’s quite a lot of opportunity for developing R.I.’s next generation of audiences, especially since that last tranche of the pre-Covid audience will likely never be returning as subscribers. That model is the “man on the edge of the cliff!” It’s time to shift the focus to creating the next generation of audience. That’s the only real hope for sustainability.

    • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on January 1, 2024 at 12:52 pm


      Thanks for such a thoughtful response. Generating dialogue is one reason I began the Fuse. I want to mull over what you have said here, but amen to the idea of theater dedicated to community and drawing in a new (younger) audience of theatergoers.

      What I want to make clear is that I am not arguing for some sort of either/or regarding productions — either Broadway or challenging. Escapist entertainment will always be with us — and there is nothing wrong with that — as long as theaters do the vital work of acknowledging reality — “the existential crises facing the next generation – climate and democracy and race.” Companies should bring poetry, theatricality, innovation, and wit to that mission.

      I love your image of “danger” — the man on the cliff. We need theater companies to absorb the fact that there is a crisis — and it won’t be solved with more effective marketing. The cliff doesn’t go away if you close your eyes.

    • Bob Abelman on January 4, 2024 at 9:47 am

      Yup. Not mentioned in this piece is that many of the named Providence theaters are actively engaging in theater education programs in schools, to help generate and inspire new theatergoers.

      To borrow your “man on the edge of cliff” reference, another way to attract young adults to the theater is to offer the theater equivalent of cliff diving — experimental, exploratory, technologically emboldened productions that not only address crisis issues relevant to this next generation but do so in innovative and entertaining ways. Prior to landing in Providence, I lived in Austin, TX and Cleveland, OH, and both cities have theaters dedicated to this brand. Though struggling like everyone else, their houses are filled with young folks.

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