Amiee Turner, a co-founder of the Ocean State Theatre Company, is also president, CEO and the producing artistic director. Founded in 2007 to reinvigorate Theatre By the Sea, which had been closed since 2003, the theater company moved just over a year ago to a repurposed building at 1245 Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick.
The theater company’s mission is to preserve and pass on the tradition of live, professional theater — including the American musical, as well as promote enrichment and education in Rhode Island and the surrounding region.
Turner’s directing credits include Katie Couric’s star-studded benefit featuring the music of “West Side Story” and a 30-piece orchestra (Waldorf Astoria), to envisioning the original work “Zap!” from playwright Eric Coble (Florida Rep), to the spring 2011 production of “Gypsy” at Providence College.
PBN: What is the Ocean State Theatre Company's chief mission and how do you ensure that it is fulfilled?
TURNER: To ensure fulfillment of our mission we have focused on one phrase in particular, “filling the void.” This helps keep our efforts as clear and concise as possible. Rhode Island is a state with some really wonderful arts organizations but having said that, we feel there is still several significant “voids.” Some of those voids that we have focused on this year include: the limited availability of professional, year-round musical theater programming; the limited opportunities for local theater professionals locally; the lack of year-round, live theater at the professional level south of Providence; and increasing appreciation for the theatrical arts as it pertains to enrichment of both an individual life and the local economy.
PBN: Do you prefer producing or directing and why?
TURNER: That is a difficult question to answer. As a director you are “in the trenches.” You must fall deeply in love with a piece of literature, learn new things about yourself and the world, fearlessly explore it's content with the brave souls known as actors, and consistently keep the team focused on a singular vision, while staying open to a better idea. Although the director begins work on a project as soon as possible, it is a very complex mental exercise for the three weeks of the actual rehearsal time. You also get to see the actors grow and engage in the piece – right up until opening night – it is a very similar experience to that of a teacher. As a producer, it is more of a 30,000-foot view. Your principle work goes into putting the pieces together, the creative team, the actors, the staff and the audience. If you do your job well, there comes a point where it should begin to run itself.
In both circumstances, I love combining local talent with out-of-state talent, young artists with “lifers,” and watching the process ignite. At its heart, theater is a trade – a craft – that is passed down, up and sideways through experience. You must always be improving your skill and learning from others that have different experiences.
PBN: What offerings presented in your role as producing artistic director are you most proud of and why?
TURNER: I am proud of many things but three things come to mind: first, the fact that I have not done this alone. I really have the honor of leading an amazing staff that includes so many talented and smart people but particularly my producing partner Joel Kipper, Marketing Director Karen Kessler and Production Manager Ryan McGinty who have all been with the theater company from the beginning.
Second, we are supporting the local economy. Since we build the sets, costumes, props, everything on-site for each production; we shop our local community for lumber, fabric, concessions, etc. – the local restaurants and hotels see an improvement in their business on the nights (and days) we have productions running. And don't forget the gas that's bought, the babysitter that is paid, the dress that is purchased, etc., all because thousands of people each month are going out to the theater!
Third, I try to be around for as many performances as possible before, during and after each show. I really do love engaging with our wonderful patrons. They have started to notice our shows have an “Amiee factor” that I am very proud of. I'm not always sure what they mean by that, but I think that means they see my attention to detail and aesthetic in casting in every production.
PBN: What is special about Rhode Island audiences?
TURNER: People ask me this all the time. This is a wonderful state to produce theater in! I have found there is no snobbishness to the arts like you find in many other places. Everyone is open to going to the theater. “ ‘The working Joe’ attends theater with enthusiasm equal to ‘The Intellectual.’ When we posed the question to ourselves, “What is our target audience?” the answer we came up with is exactly what is so special about Rhode Island audiences – the entire state is our potential audience. Perhaps it is the great work of outreach to young audiences over the past several decades by organizations like Trinity Rep, but I find that Rhode Islanders are very open to theater and enjoy it as a basic part of their life.
PBN: How long do you hope to remain producing artistic director at this theater company and what are your long-term professional plans?
TURNER: Having performed for more than 25 years (including six Broadway shows), worked in restaurants and professional sports, produced an independent movie, reopened Theatre By The Sea in 2007, and now having built a theater that did not previously exist, I would love to be here for a while. But like all not-for-profit organizations, that is ultimately up to the public.
Ticket sales only cover about 80 percent of our operating costs so without the support from the community, the city and the state, we simply can't exist. So, they will tell us if they think this theater is worth supporting, if they like the work that we are doing, and if it is important to their lives and economy. I will say that I am very proud of this organization and everything we have accomplished, particularly through the toughest economy I have seen in my lifetime. And, since we have a 20-year lease on our building in Warwick, I hope to be here for quite some time.