As the city attempts to develop the Interlink and Warwick Station District, a new player has entered the scene – quite literally.
Ocean State Theatre Company (OSTC), the non-profit producing entity of Theatre By the Sea in Matunuck, is now looking to convert warehouse space at 1245 Jefferson Blvd. into a fully operational theater by as soon as this time next year.
“It’s really always been part of our strategic plan,” said OSTC Artistic Producer Amiee Turner. “There have always been serious limitations at Theatre by the Sea.”
When Theatre By the Sea in Matunuck reopened in 2007, OSTC took the reigns. It has been under the artistic direction of Turner and her partner, Managing Director Joel Kipper, since then. The 500-seat theater, located in a former barn, produces four musicals each summer season, and this year added a straight play to its roster. But during the winter months, the non-insulated, chilly barn shuts its doors and the players abandon the beachside playhouse. Turner is now hoping to fill the gap between September and May with off-season entertainment at a new space.
Over the past three years, Turner has looked at approximately 40 locations in South Kingston, North Kingston, East Greenwich and Warwick. In the fall, OSTC looked into a space at 461 Main Street in East Greenwich, but could not come to terms with the landlord. Now, they’re hoping that things will fall into place with the space at Jefferson Boulevard.
“This is extraordinarily preliminary,” said Turner. “The special use permits are our very first obstacle.”
OSTC will come before the Zoning Board of Review tonight with a petition for a special permit to convert the 13,914-square foot industrial building into a 476-seat theater.
“We haven’t had something like this since the Warwick Musical Theater,” said K. Joseph Shekarchi, who is representing the theater company.
According to the city Planning Department, the property is zoned light industrial and would need a special use permit to operate a theater with less than required landscaping, less than required landscaping buffers and less than required parking setbacks.
But Turner sees the space as having potential.
“It’s a huge open warehouse,” she said. “What you need for a theater to get built is a big open space. This space also has what we feel is a good start for parking necessities.”
Should the Zoning Board permit OSTC to use the space as they wish, Turner will seek to enter into a long-term lease of the property. Funding for the project will come from a variety of sources, said Turner.
“We anticipate support to come from a wide range of options including government and foundation grants, private and corporate donations, public and private loans as well as anticipated earned revenue,” she said.
In addition to producing plays and musicals, of which there would be roughly five per season, OSTC plans to bring its educational program to Warwick.
“We already have an excellent children series,” said Turner. “This would give us the opportunity to do that year-round.”
OSTC started a children’s camp this year for young performers and those interested in the technical side of theater. Turner said she feels there is a need for this program in the state, and hopes to expand it.
Currently, Bishop Hendricken High School and Rhode Island Youth Theatre both run summer theater camps for youth in Warwick.
“I really believe in the old adage ‘A high tide raises more ships,’” said Turner in regards to the other competitors in Warwick. Despite the presence of established youth programs, Turner still feels there is a place for Camp OSTC.
“There are still a lot of holes to be filled. We’ll fill the gap of some needs. We bring to the table a truly heightened sense of professionalism by being associated with a professional theater. It’s a slightly different niche.”
Although the rough sketch of their plans is in place, Turner said the full force of OSTC’s energy and thought has still been directed toward Theatre By the Sea.
“We understand the reality [of expanding],” she said. “We’re investigating the best places for us to fit in.”
In a review of the proposal prepared for the board by Rick Crenca of the planning department, industrial uses on Jefferson Boulevard have successfully mixed with a variety of uses including restaurants, medical and professional offices, real estate offices and commercial outlets. Crenca notes that the city’s comprehensive plan encourages mixed uses where compatible and that the department generally favors the plan. But traffic concerns are raised.
“This neighborhood, bordered by Kenyon Avenue and Main Avenue, is a densely, well established neighborhood and provides the opportunity for cut-through traffic for vehicles leaving the theater site and traveling south and west on Jefferson Boulevard,” Crenca said in the report. The department also voices the concern of overflow parking on neighboring streets.
Stipulations recommended by the Planning Department include no theater parking on Kenyon Avenue and Echo Drive; a traffic detail if required necessary by the Police Department; that parking lot lighting be directed away from abutting properties; and that a 6-foot fence and evergreen hedge enclose the proposed dumpster. Further, the department suggests a May 1, 2014 sunset provision requiring the theater to seek renewal of the special permit if it is to continue operating at the location.
If all goes according to plan, OSTC would open the new theater in October of 2012.
Turner said OSTC sought out locations like Warwick and East Greenwich to obtain a more centralized location in the state. She also feels like there’s a need for a theater in Warwick, and a statewide lack of musical programming.
“There’s not a fully professional theater company outside of the greater Providence area,” she said, noting that theaters like the Gamm and Trinity Rep stage mostly non-musical shows.
Turner said innumerable studies have shown the benefits of arts and culture in communities.
“It’s exciting for us, and [the city] really does see it as a cultural and economic boon,” she said.
But Turner is trying to stay grounded and realistic about the project, and isn’t counting her chicks before they hatch.
“Our biggest fear is that somehow, this whole thing has gotten ahead of itself,” she said. “It’s not a done deal in any way. The media and some individuals have this sense that this is a done deal. We’re being extraordinarily cautious. Everything we’re thinking about is a decent time away from being a possibility.”