Theater lovers throughout Rhode Island have reason to rejoice, as the board of directors of The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre (The Gamm) – currently based out of the Pawtucket Armory – announced they will move into what used to be the Ocean State Theatre Company’s space at 1245 Jefferson Blvd. in Warwick as part of a 10-year lease, with two five-year options included.
Gamm Managing Director Oliver Dow said in an interview on Monday that, when the theater company moved into the armory, it was never intended to be their permanent home.
“We never thought we'd be in the current space for 15 years,” Dow said, adding that the space does not have a backstage area, does not have space underneath the stage and that actors can hardly get from one side of the stage to another unimpeded. “It is a facility that doesn’t live up to our needs anymore.”
Dow said that The Gamm board was originally seeking another space in Pawtucket, but when that fell through the opportunity presented by the former Ocean State Theatre location was too much to pass up, as Warwick is centrally located in the state and has ready access to important amenities, such as food and drink establishments, that didn’t exist to the same extent in Pawtucket.
Even better, though, was the opportunity to move into a building that was historically utilized as a theater and rework that same purpose towards a brand new vision – a theatrical vision that suits The Gamm’s more intimate style of theater.
“Our primary goal was to find a space that could improve the conditions for our artists while maintaining the theatrical experience to which our audience has become accustomed,” Dow said in a press release. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for The Gamm to re-light an existing dark theater while making a substantial capital investment in our artistic mission.”
That mission, Dow said, is to create an adjustable space based on the type of show being performed. Dow said that he hopes to be able to create a kind of “theater within a theater,” capable of reducing its size to be suitable for smaller productions – a specialty of The Gamm given their old location’s seat capacity of 135 – while also being able to open up to the full, 410-seat capacity of the theater for larger shows.
“I want it to be a multipurpose space, not just for our season but also for the whole community,” Dow said, adding that he will be bringing in a theater consultant to assist in this vision. “Any time you come, hopefully it will be a new experience as soon as you walk in.”
Dow touted the fact that The Gamm is one of only two year-round professional theater companies in the state, meaning that they only employ unionized, professional actors in their productions.
“When you come to The Gamm you're going to see a professional production – and that includes everything from when you walk into the door to what you see on the stage...the entire experience is professional,” he said. “True theater lovers like the work we do because they feel they can get a similar experience as they will get at an Off Broadway show at The Gamm.”
Dow said that The Gamm prides itself on putting on productions of shows that would otherwise rarely be seen, if seen at all. He said the mission of the theater is not to make money – The Gamm is a nonprofit theater – but to address and comment on centralized themes each season that are relative to various current events.
“Our mission is not to produce hits,” he said. “It's nice to have a hit and we certainly want to sell tickets, but our mission is to produce plays that address issues of contemporary importance.”
However there is much work to be done between now and when Dow hopes to open the theater to the public – in time for the beginning of their 2018/19 season in September of next year.
Dow said that the administrative offices, actors’ studios and dressing rooms need to be finished. He said they are in the initial phases of crafting a capital campaign in order to raise money for these needs. Although he didn’t want to wager a premature guess into how much the renovations would cost, he did say that it would be “significantly” less than the $5 million price tag they faced to fix up the armory location in Pawtucket.
“We have a lot of options to grow,” Dow said. “It comes down to how much money it's going to cost and how much we can raise.”
The Ocean State Theatre Company announced in May that it would be closing. It was later revealed that the company owed more than $860,000 in back rent and ultimately surrendered the building to property owner, Mutual Property Associates, to settle the debt. Dow could not disclose how much The Gamm paid in order to lease the property.
The Gamm board is planning to turn their first board meeting into a sort of event at the theater to introduce themselves to the Warwick community on Oct. 24.
“We are excited to welcome this award-winning theater as the arts anchor of our ‘city on the move,’” Mayor Scott Avedisian said in the release. “I am truly looking forward to forging a great relationship with The Gamm and seeing Jefferson Boulevard become a cultural destination for the city and the state.”