A very merry return to the stage for Bristol Theatre Company

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 11/15/23

It was less than eight months ago that a vision was proposed for the former 2nd Story Theatre on Market Street in Warren. It was as undeniably exciting as it was completely hypothetical. And yet...

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A very merry return to the stage for Bristol Theatre Company


It was less than eight months ago that a group of likeminded advocates for community theater filled The Event Room at Cutler Mill to propose a vision that was as undeniably exciting as it was completely hypothetical for the former 2nd Story Theatre on Market Street in Warren.

At that same meeting, representatives from the Bristol Theatre Company — languishing in limbo after being removed from the Reynolds School in Bristol and not having put on a production since February of 2020 due to Covid — could only express yearning hope to be a part of that vision; which would require some unknown buyer (with a heart for the arts) to take over the vacant building and open its doors to various creative pursuits from local nonprofit theatre companies.

Charles Dickens himself couldn’t have written a more delightfully unlikely tale as the one that is unfolding here in Warren in the months since, as the Bristol Theatre Company is in the midst of final preparations for its run of “A Christmas Carol”, which will serve as the first theatrical production to take place in the revamped theatre space at 28 Market St. since it was taken over by In Your Ear Records owner Chris Zingg and his business partners in April.

“We keep saying ‘Pinch us, is this actually real life?’”, said Kara Rocha, a 20-year veteran of the Bristol Theatre Company and the director for this year’s rendition of “Christmas Carol.” “We have definitely had some hurdles and issues, but the fact that we have this space and are going to be able to perform on this stage that we’re performing on, I think that over time it will turn back into a home for this entire community of people that enjoy theater.”

Old space, but a brand new experience
It may not be as supernaturally impressive as the spirits accomplishing the salvation of Scrooge’s soul in one night, but the journey from In Your Ear’s acquisition of the space to it being ready for a show in December of the same year is certainly a feat in its own right.

The former setup had seats set up in a circle around the stage (called “in the round” in theatre speak). The new space has more traditional stadium style seating, 160 in total, with a large, slightly elevated stage in front and wings on the front and back of either side for entrances and exits of performers.

Rocha said that the team at In Your Ear, comprised of Zingg, David Silva, and Taylor Benton, are not charging the Bristol Theatre Company — or the other theater group that plans to utilize the space, Arts Alive! out of Barrington — in order to access or utilize the space, but they’ve found other ways to earn their keep.

“We use it for sweat equity. They need stuff done, we do it. We move stuff around, come in and clean, paint, whatever they need, we do, and they let us use the space,” Rocha said. “It’s been fantastic and it’s very generous of them. They’re choosing to be a part of the arts community by letting us use the space.”

Of course, the In Your Ear team will also benefit from having multiple nights of packed houses — tickets are nearly completely sold out already for all three performances here, and another four at Linden Place in Bristol. They just opened up their vinyl bar in the lower area this past weekend, adjacent to the new record store, which will serve drinks and food to patrons of the shows and supplement an additional bar and merchandise booth on the theater level.

“They’ve been very easy to work with and supportive and have pitched in quite a bit to get everything moving with the theater, which we’re very appreciative of,” said Zingg of the theater groups’ partnership. “So far, so good.”

As for a new name for the revitalized theater? The team opted to keep it simple, calling it “In Your Ear Theatre”, at least for now.

Another spoke in the Warren arts hub
Already a thriving arts hub in Rhode Island, Bristol Theatre Company chairperson Marie Knapman said that this whole arrangement actually coming together after the lofty wishes expressed during that meeting back in March is still a subject of amazement among her and other theater advocates.

“There was a lot of pie in the sky plans and hopes and dreams,” she said. “And we had been pretty much living waiting for the other shoe to drop, so I was kind of skeptical. Like, let’s wait and see what actually happens, right?”

But now, Knapman acknowledges that things seem to actually be on the right track for the first time since all the uncertainty began in 2020. The Bristol Theatre Company put on its first full production, “Descendents: The Musical” back in August at St. Philomena School in Portsmouth. Now, with “Christmas Carol” happening a little closer to home, she said she was happy to see the company being closer to a more permanent existence, and out of the purely nomadic lifestyle they’d been surviving in the past few years.
But she said there’s still work to do to get back to how things were when they were at Reynolds, doing four shows a year.

“A lot of people are like, you have a new home, that’s great. And it is, and we do have that potential, but we also have to juggle with everybody else. So we may have to still be in other places, too,” she said. “But the community sharing aspect of it is fabulous. We love to be able to work with all of them, because we all want the same thing. We want the arts to thrive, especially for kids, but also adults…There are a lot of adults with a lot of talent who love performing, but they grew up and had to be a banker or a tax guy or whatever because they need to make a salary and support a family, but they should still be able to follow their heart.”

Adults like John Silveira, playing the lead role as Ebenezer Scrooge, know that calling well.

He starred in many productions as a student and young man before walking away from the theater for 24 years to build his career as a project manager for high-end residential construction. In 2009, he jumped in to save a performance that needed a short-notice actor, and he’s been back in shows ever since. “It’s very exciting,” he said of being a part of the inaugural show at the new theater. “This is my release.”

Kevin John Silva, whose connection to Bristol Theatre Company goes back many years. In fact, his first show was “A Christmas Carol”. It’s a full circle moment that is not lost on him.

“When COVID hit and shut down Bristol Theater, I didn’t think I’d do theater anymore, to be honest,” he said. “Then they said they were coming back and I lost my mind, because they’re like family at this point. I’ve known them far too long.”

Director Rocha remembers that show with Silva, too. She performed in it, and her oldest daughter (who is about to graduate high school) played Tiny Tim.

“It’s definitely coming full circle,” she said. “Just being a part of this whole process has made it even more rewarding, and the end result will mean so much more…It was almost like it went from a real high to a real low and didn’t know how to get out of it. But we knew we needed to because it’s obviously something the community needs.”

The show runs from Dec. 8-10 at In Your Ear Theatre in Warren, and from Dec. 14-17 at Linden Place. You can find tickets at EventBrite.com by searching “A Christmas Carol - A Play with Music.”

2024 by East Bay Media Group

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.