Arts & Culture

Providence arts, on a budget

By and
Arts and Culture Editors
Friday, September 11, 2009

It might be possible for arts junkies to spend four years at Brown, never leaving College Hill, and still feel sated. Perhaps possible, but we don’t recommend it.

Yes, Brown’s theater scene is thriving, and its music and fine arts offerings vibrant. And that slog back up the Hill after a night downcity can feel murderous in New England’s trademark damp cold. But Providence’s quirky, proudly do-it-yourself arts world is truly unmissable. And it’s possible to see it all without spending a fortune.

By way of greeting new Brown students and welcoming back the old ones — and at the risk of rendering all of these venues instantly uncool — here is our attempt at a budget-friendly guide to the arts in Providence.

Theater

The city’s flagship theater institution is the Trinity Repertory Company (201 Washington St.). Founded in 1963, Trinity Rep boasts a top-notch resident acting company, meaning its productions benefit from cohesive casts familiar with each other and their stage. As a partner in the MFA-granting Brown University/Trinity Rep Consortium, the company trains rising actors and directors.

This season kicks off with a production of “Cabaret,” directed by the company’s artistic director, Curt Columbus. Other highlights include Shakespeare’s magical “Twelfth Night” and the Providence premiere of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” a play by the wonderful Sarah Ruhl ’97 MFA’01.

For something more rough-hewn, more experimental and, potentially, more exciting, check out Perishable Theatre (95 Empire St.). As its name indicates, Perishable is interested in stuff that’s fresh. The emphasis is on new plays, with a focus on female playwrights.

The 2009-2010 season features a musical by Obie-winner Lisa D’Amour and builds up to a production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” in April. Perishable’s monthly “Live Bait” program — loosely based on the public radio show “This American Life” — invites audience members to share true-life stories built around particular themes. (A friendly five-minutes-per-story time limit keeps things moving.)

Just up Westminster Street, the Providence Black Repertory Company (276 Westminster St.) features dance, music, drumming and other performing arts of the African diaspora in its public programs. Its varied theater programming has included Tracy Letts’ “Bug” and George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum” in recent years.

The best part: All three companies offer student tickets, meaning a night at the theater runs from $10 to $20.
 

Music

From its inception, AS220 (115 Empire St.) has been at the nerve center of art and original music in Providence. It has living and working spaces exclusively for artists. It has record labels, workshops and performance and exhibition spaces. And for a cover under $10, you can hear music that’s guaranteed not to be copyrighted by a large corporation. This Saturday, it’s the bands Mahi Mahi, Brava Spectre and Paper Eagles.

Like AS220, Firehouse 13 (41 Central St.) connects all sorts of artists. Typical of the artsy, social events at this old converted firehouse: This Saturday’s “Ultimate ’80s Prom”  (starts at 8 p.m., $10) with live music by the group Simply Rad and, of course, a Prom Court competition.

One of the newest additions to the Providence music scene, as of July 6, The 201 (201 Westminster St.), is promising in both its mission and its appeal.

“201 is a live music venue in the center of Providence,” general manager Christopher Foster told The Herald. “Our crowd for the most part isn’t so much a genre as an attitude.  We have a pleasant atmosphere, like-minded folks listening to rock and roll. No pretense.” Every Wednesday through Saturday, this venue is replete with dancing, DJs and all sorts of retro rock.

On the other hand, if you like to imbibe your culture with a cup of espresso, funky Tazza Caffe (250 Westminster St.) will fit the bill. The offerings range from live jazz or blues to a myriad of visual arts, as well as characteristic coffee house poetry readings. The “Award-winning open mic hosted by Brian M.” is a must-see. Every Sunday night at 7 p.m., patrons are guaranteed to hear local singer-songwriters. If they’re lucky, they might catch a cameo by a one of Brown University’s many musicians.

And, of course, you can’t get any cheaper than free. Believe it or not, Kennedy Plaza, at the center of downtown Providence, is good for more than catching buses and avoiding late at night. The Greater Kennedy Plaza Working Group — yes, it exists — offers weekly free concerts as part of its Burnside Park Music Series. (Burnside Park, by the way, is that plot of grass just north of the bus plaza, the one with the fountain. Yes, it has a name.) On Thursday evenings, it’s New England bands: Next up is Lars Vegas, a tongue-in-cheek jazz group. 

But for top names at low Providence prices, Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel(79 Washington St.) is the place to go. On Oct. 27, Andrew Bird headlines a concert that also features Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, with a ticket price that would never be found in another city. Other upcoming acts include Neko Case and The Swell Season.

Art

The Rhode Island School of Design Museum (224 Benefit St.) has been on a kind of roller coaster lately. Only last September, RISD was celebrating the opening of its exceptional Chace Center and a blockbuster Dale Chihuly exhibition. But less than a year later, in the midst of a financial crisis that has been particularly hard on arts organizations, the museum shut down for the whole month of August.

Luckily, the museum is now open again, and remains free to RISD and Brown students, faculty and staff, a testament to its commitment to education. The RISD Museum’s exhibitions offer unusual subject matter and uncommonly thoughtful curating. “The Brilliant Line,” a show of early-modern engraving, opens Sept. 18, while Taiwanese artist Shih Chieh Huang’s installation “Connected: Eject before disconnecting” pulses with multi-colored light in a nearby gallery.

Equally close to campus, but maintaining a lower profile, the Providence Art Club (11 Thomas St.) makes its home in a row of beautiful buildings across from the First Baptist Church. Obviously, it’s not a pristine Chelsea gallery for art world stars. In its own homey way, it’s a remarkable, quiet place to check out local artists and, maybe, see something surprising.

Ever since the city’s recent “Renaissance,” Providence’s grand theme has been the productive tension between preservation and revitalization. Two successful organizations show how both approaches can inspire exciting work. The Providence Preservation Society (21 Meeting St., No. 2) celebrates the city’s historic houses and advocates for their survival in a rapidly changing urban environment, presenting photography exhibits and frequent lectures. Across town, The Steel Yard (27 Sims Ave) occupies the site of the now-defunct Providence Steel and Iron complex. It offers classes in blacksmithing, glassmaking, ceramics — the hard-hats-only arts. For anyone who has ever wanted to weld something, it’s a dream come true.
 

The rest

For the student who wants an alternative to the Avon Cinema (260 Thayer St.), but can’t bear the fluorescence of Providence Place (10 Providence Place), the Cable Car Cinema and Cafe (204 S. Main St.) is an apt alternative. In addition to its regular programming of foreign and out-of-the-way films, the Cable Car has occasionally offered free screenings that draw huge crowds ­— at last spring’s showing of a new print of “Harold and Maude,” every available space, even the floor, was filled. The Cable Car’s Daniel Kamil says that, while no free screenings are on the docket at the moment, interested students can keep track of upcoming events on the theater’s Web site.

And finally, a word about Waterfire. Yes, we know your parents thought it was really great. Even if
it’s not quite as important as walking through the Van Wickle Gates, Waterfire is still required viewing for all Brown students. Since its first lighting in 1994, Barnaby Evans’ perennially popular work of public art has been central to the Providence experience. Surrounded by a hectic carnival atmosphere and new-age music, volunteers in boats light up a string of bonfires down the middle of the Providence River.

Despite the bustling surroundings, there is a certain majestic quiet to Waterfire. Happening only two more times this semester, on Sept. 19 and Oct. 10, this beautiful (and free) event is not to be missed.