After many years of begging and borrowing for rehearsal and performance spaces for the wildly popular Arts Alive! program she has nurtured since its birth, Dena Davis and team are about to debut new programming in a space they can truly call home.
Dena Davis sat in the auditorium of a renovated theater last Saturday morning and felt the anticipation of a dream coming true. After many years of begging and borrowing for rehearsal and performance spaces for the wildly popular Arts Alive! program she has nurtured since its birth, Davis and team are about to debut new programming in a space they can truly call home.
Arts Alive! does not own the newly renovated theater on Market Street in Warren, once home to the proud and mighty Second Story Theatre. In Your Ear Records, which is located on the first floor, owns the building and the theater.
Nor does Arts Alive! have exclusive use of the theater. They are sharing it with two other nonprofit organizations, the Bristol Theatre Company and Providence-based Spectrum Theatre Ensemble. All three organizations expect to stage performances there this year.
However, Arts Alive! has put blood, sweat and tears into this space, with volunteers logging many hours to help rebuild and finish the stage, the risers, the seating, and the “green room” backstage. Davis and team vacuumed years of dust off of every seat. They painted the floors. They cleaned and cleaned and cleaned.
“The great thing is that many of our high school students feel like they have an ownership over this space, because they were in here too. They were nailing down all these little panels. They were painting. They were sweeping. They’re so excited about the Green Room backstage.”
The newly renovated backstage room has plenty of room for dressing, switching costumes and prepping for a performance. Mirrors hang on every wall — something young performers are not accustomed to in their school settings. The new space — provided complementary by In Your Ear Records — is generating good vibes for Arts Alive! and its leadership team, too.
“We are all so excited, I can’t even tell you,” Davis said. “There’s something really freeing and wonderful, as an organization, to be able to operate outside the schools, where you feel like you don’t have to constantly beg to use the space and work around other people’s schedules. We can run this like a true theater program.”
A space they can own
Arts Alive! is very well known in the Barrington community because it has staged spectacular musical performances in every elementary school in town, plus at Barrington Middle School, for many years. Many casts have more than a hundred performers. They rehearse for months. And they culminate in grand performances beyond the scale of what one would expect of the typical student musical.
The 501(c)3 nonprofit expanded beyond Barrington several years ago to work with the Hugh Cole Elementary School community in Warren, but coming soon is its true East Bay debut. Arts Alive! will soon hold auditions for “Chicago: Teen Edition,” a Broadway-type production that hits the stage in May. Registration is open now, and auditions are March 5 and 7. There are roles for 35 high school performers.
While turning around in the empty theater, Davis said, “We’re going to be in here rehearsing three days a week, which is so great, because at the schools, we’re lucky if we can get them on a stage one day a week.”
Before the “Chicago” auditions are held, Arts Alive! will make its first move into the new theater space with a February school vacation week “Broadway Boot Camp.” Open to Grades 6 to 12, the camp will take students through a week of Fosse-inspired jazz music, dancing and performance. The camp will be led by Jennifer Cicerone, who has 25 years of experience in the Providence School District and is a faculty member at Ocean State Ballet in East Providence. Joining her is Elisabeth St. Pierre, a music educator from the Bristol Warren school district.
A new East Bay arts center?
Davis gets passionate when talking about theater and the arts. While walking through the empty theater, she was bubbling with enthusiasm.
“I’m excited about this space because the East Bay doesn’t really have an arts center, and I feel like this has the opportunity to be an arts center,” she said. According to Davis, young people who want to perform beyond their school might travel far, to perhaps the Stadium Theater in Woonsocket.
“There’s nothing over here in the East Bay, and poor Bristol Theater Company lost their home, so they haven’t been able to do much recently,” Davis said. “It’s been really wonderful to form a friendship with them. I feel like our missions are very similar and aligned … I would love for people around here to feel like we have a home for the arts, and for performing artists.”
For Davis, the impact will be greater than providing the community some entertainment on a weekend night.
“I know I often get on a soapbox to talk about this, but I feel like it’s more important than ever to support the arts … With the rise of AI [artificial intelligence], and jobs being automated … I mean, what’s more important than creativity? For our future leaders, for young people entering the job space — they need to have speaking skills and communication skills, to understand collaboration and teamwork … They need to get off their damn phones and devices … There is so much value in taking part in this kind of an experience, especially for young people.”
For parents today, that might be a dream come true.