The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at email@example.com.
This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Josh Short, founder and artistic director of the The Wilbury Theatre Group.
Question: What is The Wilbury Theatre Group and when did it begin?
Answer: It is a small nonprofit theater. We have been in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence for the last three years, but this is our 10th year as an organization. We focus primarily on new works and new work development, and we produce the Providence Fringe Festival every year.
The name Wilbury comes from The Traveling Wilburys, the super group that included Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison. It came from the idea of individual talents setting aside egos to focus on the collaborative process. We are big on collaboration and community building. It runs in our veins.
Q: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected The Wilbury Theatre Group?
A: It was hard at first. We had just opened a production of “Miss You Like Hell” on March 7 and then we had to shut down on March 12 after four performances and good reviews. It was supposed to run for a month. We have not opened since. It took us a week and a half or so to get up and running with streaming programming online.
We were one of the fortunate ones to get a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan and some money from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, and the Rhode Island Foundation. So even though we didn’t do all the “Miss You Like Hell” shows, we were still able to pay artists for the entire run, thanks to grants and generous donations, and we were able to pay artists a little bit for streaming.
But it’s certainly not much. A lot of people are hurting. The company is safe, but individual artists are hurting for sure right now, and if people want to help, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts has the Artist Relief Fund.
Q: In what ways has the Wilbury Theatre Group innovated in response to the pandemic?
A: We started by streaming some performances that we already had in our back pocket, such as “Roadhouse the Musical” by Brien Lang, and “Invoice for Emotional Labor” by Christopher Johnson. For those first ones, it was a challenge to take something written for live performances and transfer it to a new medium — mostly Zoom. But then playwrights like Brien Lang began creating things made for Zoom, for this new medium. We went back and forth about whether to charge admission, but we decided offering them for free was a way to stay engaged with our audience. So we began streaming live through our Facebook and YouTube pages, so anyone can watch them for free, and they are archived.
Q: What prompted you to start the “Road to Reopening” online series?
A: Once we got performances happening again and streaming, we wanted to be ready to reopen at some point. So we reached out to a regular subscriber who happened to be an epidemiologist and associate professor at the Brown University school of public health, Brandon Marshall. We asked him to put together a reopening plan for whenever audiences can come back into the theater. He gave us our plans to sanitize and keep audiences and artists safe, and it occurred to us that being part of these conversations might be of interest to others and our audience members.
Even if it is safe to reopen, will the audience feel ready to return? That is a big concern. So we put together two “Road to Reopening” conversations with me and Brandon. It was an opportunity to hear straight from an epidemiologist about best practices in a performing arts environment. The second conversation was with Stephanie Fortunato and Micah Salkind of Providence Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism. They also have been working on plans for arts and culture organizations to reopen.
Q: What are some of the main takeaways from those conversations, and when will you reopen?
A: The biggest challenge still is keeping the artists safe. Ushers can put out hand sanitizer as audience members walk in. Masks are required for anyone entering the space. You can seat people far apart and stagger entrances and exists. But the actors, the singers, the musicians on stage — their interactions with each other are still a challenge. We are collaborating with WaterFire on a piece we hope to put up at the end of July, and while we are working out the details with the state Department of Health, it would be a series of performances spread out between indoor and outdoor areas where the audience would move.
We’re very glad to see Governor Raimondo has included guidelines for theaters and entertainment venues as part of the Phase 3 reopening plans. I admire the leadership she and her team have taken in recognizing that a return to live theater is possible when companies are given a set of clear guidelines, and we all owe a debt to the team at the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts for advocating so strongly for this.
Q: Tell us about the statement you issued in support of Black Lives Matter.
A: A lot of theaters, ours included, have benefited from a white supremacist structure over the years, and there is a groundswell happening in the Black Lives Matter movement saying that the time of silencing voices from Black and indigenous communities, from people of color, is over. We want to make sure the artists of color and people of color in our audience know where we stand on this issue. Silence is violence. I feel you are complicit if you don’t speak out.