Q&A Spotlight: America’s Oldest Little Theatre

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American's Oldest Little Theatre

Walter Cotter, Kathy Oliverio, David Crossley and Susan Collyer in a May 2012 production of The Man Who Came To Dinner.

After 100+ years, how does a “little theatre” continue making a big impact in its community? To learn more about The Players at Barker Playhouse in Providence, Rhode Island, we visited with Kathleen Oliverio, President.

YPP: When did “little theatres” get started?

Oliverio: The movement arose in the early 1900s, when cinemas were gaining popularity. Some people involved in live theatre decided to counteract cinemas with smaller theatres presenting more intimate, not-for-profit productions.

Little theatre is for non-professional, non-paid actors – for amateurs. Our volunteer actors have “real” jobs: doctors, lawyers, teachers, students, glassblowers…all sorts of things. You don’t have to be professionally trained to audition or get involved. We’ll give you the tools through workshops in acting, set building, lighting, etc.

YPP: What is the history of The Players?

Oliverio: We were founded in 1909 and today we’re America’s oldest continuously running little theatre. We have an amalgam of remarkable people who make up our club. Of our approximately 450 members, probably half volunteer in some capacity, whether on a committee, building sets, acting, ushering or other roles. We’re an all-volunteer organization except for three stipend positions: general manager, technical manager and custodian. Every role is truly a labor of love.

We reconfigured our theatre four years ago, installing a handmade thrust stage, raking the floor and reducing the seating capacity from 196 to 100. Recently we purchased six 4’ x 8’ StageTek stage decks to replace the permanent thrust stage. Durability, ease of use and flexibility were deciding factors. Our directors can now arrange the stage any way they want.

YPP: What is your own personal history here?

Oliverio: I’ve been involved since I was a little girl in the audience. My mom, aunt and uncle all acted here, along with many other people involved in ‘show business’ locally: my mom was involved in television, my uncle in radio. Growing up I always had an interest in drama. My high school lacked a drama department but in college I threw myself heavily into it, although my major was humanities. I even met my husband in college theatre.

Later, when my children reached school age, I had time to get involved again; I decided I would practice my craft at The Players. I started with a non-speaking part at the end of a three-act play; I was happy to show my capabilities. Through perseverance, little by little, I’ve gotten larger roles.

I’ve served on our board of managers, the production committee and the vice president’s committee. I’ve been vice president and now am president. I’m truly honored to serve in this role.

YPP: What makes The Players different?

Oliverio: We’re like a family. I’m blessed to have known some of our longer-term members since my childhood. We’re also fortunate because our historic building is owned by the Barker Foundation; The Players’ founder was Henry Ames Barker. They are two distinct organizations. The Barker Foundation owns our historic building; we pay a nominal lease fee. They’re like our patron, generously watching over us and covering all major maintenance. We’re responsible for operating costs and have a small budget that we balance annually.

YPP: What membership trends are you seeing?

Oliverio: Our numbers are rising; I expect we’ll end the year close to 500 members. We’re filling our 100-seat house for two weekends in a row, six performances. Sadly, sometimes we have to turn people away. For $85, members get a ticket to all five main stage productions and three major parties. People 25 and younger can join for $40. The parties are mainly social events, with minimal fundraising involved. Members also get discounts for other events and classes.

YPP: How is The Players involved in the community?

Oliverio: We do a lot. During Benefit Nights, we give a local charitable organization the chance to sell tickets for one of our dress rehearsals and host a reception to raise money. We help a nearby church with food and clothing drives and similar projects. We partner with the Providence Preservation Society by opening our playhouse for tours. Schools and libraries also ask us for “living history” performers – someone to play George Washington, for example. We also perform little vignettes from our plays at community parks and senior centers. We’re proud to be America’s oldest little theatre – we’re not going to hide our light under a bushel!

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