For Wilbury Theatre Group, the show must go on even in uncertain times

SOUNDS OF SUMMER: Musicians Ashley Frith and Desmond Bratton perform for an outdoor audience during The Wilbury Theatre Group’s “Decameron, Providence” event during the summer of 2020.  / COURTESY ERIN X. SMITHERS
SOUNDS OF SUMMER: Musicians Ashley Frith and Desmond Bratton perform for an outdoor audience during The Wilbury Theatre Group’s “Decameron, Providence” event during the summer of 2020. / COURTESY ERIN X. SMITHERS

PBN Business Excellence Awards 2020
Excellence at a Nonprofit – Small Company: The Wilbury Theatre Group

Since its humble beginnings 10 years ago, The ­Wilbury Theatre Group has evolved into a vibrant and vital part of Rhode Island’s performing-arts scene.

“It was a very organic process,” founder and Artistic Director Josh Short said of the theater company’s beginnings in 2010. “Myself and some friends had gotten off a play and we weren’t cast in anything else. We thought we would produce this play, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ and it was a great experience. After that, everybody kind of looked at each other and said, ‘OK, now what?’ And so, we did another one.”

Wilbury produced the play at AS220’s Blackbox Theatre, then went on to host subsequent productions at various pop-up locations, including a garage on Allens Avenue in Providence. In August of 2017, Wilbury opened its own performance space in Providence’s Olneyville section.

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“I don’t really think we were even able to fully define our mission until we had a home and we realized the importance of engaging with our community,” Short said. “It kind of allowed us to grow into what we are now.”

Wilbury has seen its budget capability increase by almost 200% in the last five years, with total incomes and expenses approaching $500,000, according to Managing Director Max Ponticelli. The organization has also received several grants and awards from the Rhode Island Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and the National Theatre Company Grant from American Theatre Wing in 2018.

Short and Ponticelli regularly collaborate with about a dozen resident artists to produce everything from 20th-century classics to contemporary musicals to new, experimental work.

“The structure of our company is less about hierarchy and is more about creating a safe space where all ideas and experimentation are welcome,” Short said.

That flexible mentality helped the Providence-based nonprofit theater company to quickly pivot into producing online streaming programming and socially distanced outdoor productions earlier this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

After Wilbury halted performances of its spring musical “Miss You Like Hell” due to the pandemic, the group switched gears to present what it called its Spring 2020 Streaming Season. Audiences tuned in via Facebook and YouTube to watch more than 40 events, which included interactive classes, readings and community discussions.

“We wanted to give folks a feeling that there was still movement, that we were still here, that even during difficult times there are still people willing to talk to each other and create art and commentary on the situation,” Ponticelli said.

Every summer, Wilbury hosts the Providence Fringe Festival, a regional arm of the International Fringe Movement meant to nurture emerging and established performing artists by presenting the community fun, fearless and affordable theater.

In response to the pandemic this year, the group shifted the focus of the festival from an in-person arts event held at the WaterFire Arts Center in Providence to an entirely digital festival.

As the pandemic continued, Wilbury began consulting with Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School and the R.I. Department of Health in order to safely host in-person performances.

As a result, the company this summer hosted “Decameron, Providence” on the grounds of WaterFire Arts Center and the nearby American Locomotive Co. building. The audience moved in small groups through 10 outdoor story gardens, encountering a testimony of life in the year 2020 in this performance inspired by the 14th-century tale by Giovanni Boccaccio of community endurance in a plague-ravaged Florence, Italy.

In October, the group debuted “Fire Flowers and a Time Machine,” also performed outdoors at the WaterFire Arts Center. Weaving together monologues, poetry and dance, the production put audiences in touch with ancestors from the past and future descendants.

Rather than remain dark during the pandemic, it has been important for the group to continue making art during this uncertain time, Ponticelli said.

“We’re in a time where everyone’s voice needs to be heard,” Ponticelli said. “Theater is the oldest form of history-making and storytelling there is. Wilbury has always felt it important to comment on the state of affairs, locally, nationally, internationally, and now is no different.”

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