[CREDIT:The Gamm Theater/The Warwick Post] An artist’s drawing of the renovated exterior at 1245 Jefferson Blvd., soon the new home of The Gamm Theatre.

In May of 2017, five years after opening and the day after closing its season with a production of Victor/Victoria, Ocean State Theater Company (OSTC) shuttered its doors, leaving a hole in Warrick’s theatre culture. OSTC’s raison d’être was “These are people that live and work in your community coming together to put together a piece of art for the benefit of their peers.”

Call it serendipity or maybe auspicious timing, but around the same time, Pawtucket’s Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre was taking stock of their success and in the market for a new, permanent space to accommodate its growing audiences and educational programming. The planets were aligned. After 15 years in their home at the historic Pawtucket Armory Arts Center, The Gamm acquired the space at 1245 Jefferson Blvd in the fall of 2017.

The Gamm “built our reputation on intimate productions of epic work like Shakespeare as well as the hard-hitting and provocative in contemporary work,” says Tony Estrella, Artistic Director of the company.  “Our new season bears that out and we will continue to play to our strengths while, I hope, continuing to surprise audiences as we grow.”

I asked Tony, knowing OSTC’s function and the hole left when the company folded, what is The Gamm’s strategy for Warwick? Tony replied, “We are transforming the auditorium space from a 400-seat proscenium style venue to a 175-seat flexible Black Box space. Essentially a roomier more dynamic version of the current Gamm space in Pawtucket. This space will give us more depth, width, height, and easier access for the audience as well as more dynamic staging possibilities for directors, designers, and actors all while retaining the intimacy that is so powerful and necessary to The Gamm’s work.

The renovation is going very well. The space will also be easily transformed into a more traditional 300-seat space available for rental to other arts and civic groups. It should be a very busy building!” Having attended several plays in the old space, I can attest to the level of intimacy provided does a much better service to a production than packing the seats. The purpose of theater is, after all, to suspend belief; to make us forget about the world of our peripheral four walls if only for a short while. The Gamm, for me, has reconfigured the house so that I had enough space to melt in my seat, without worrying about distraction from those to the left or right of me.

Because of the raison dêtre of the OSTC and the fact that they were now inhabiting the same space as their predecessor, I pressed Tony on OSTC’s idea of “utilizing people from the community to put together a piece of art for the benefit of their peers.”  I asked, “What will The Gamm do to fill that space?” Tony’s reply confirmed to me that The Gamm and the former Ocean State Theatre Company are two totally different entities. He stated, “We hire local and regionally based actors. Mostly from the greater Providence and Boston areas. We will continue to do that in Warwick. The big difference in our missions, I think, is that OSTC was well known for excellent musical productions. They did other kinds of work as well, but that was a wonderful focus for them.”

When it comes to theater, for me, the biggest concern is the educational aspect. A theater company should have a camp, a group of talented students they can develop through solid productions without scratches in the grooves causing records to bump and a skip, which can pull an audience member from their suspension of reality. From what I personally have seen, The Gamm is firmly in that groove. Flawless educational services to the community at large, so much so, I was a little concerned that the Pawtucket students would feel the loss as The Gamm made its way to Warwick. Just like Warwick suffered through losing OSTC.

I asked Tony, “Is the plan now to expand, continue to serve your previous community (educationally) while serving the students of Warwick?” Tony responded, “Our education programs will certainly expand into the Warwick area even as we retain a foothold in the Pawtucket schools where our educators have done such important work for more than a decade. We are looking forward to serving our new community and making the same kind of impact we have helped to make in Pawtucket. Education is where we can make a significant and most direct impact on the individual lives of young and old in our community.”

For more information, visit: https://www.gammtheatre.org/

(Co-written by Christopher Johnson. Playwrite, Actor, & Poet)