Rhode Island Public Radio’s Bill Gale generally goes to see a play in its early days, but this time he’s reviewed the last performance of a show at 2nd Story Theater in Warren. The play was fine, he said, but the theater is no more.
A bit after 7 p.m. Sunday, the curtain came down on “Dancing Lessons,” a crackling good play at 2nd Story Theater. It was the final performance of a show that was both laugh out loud funny and a serious look at two people struggling to maintain their lives, but that is not all. By now, you probably know that 2nd Story, a force in Rhode Island’s drama world for 40 years, is no more. Declining income and rising costs have brought the theater to its knees.
Beginning in Newport by Ed Shea and the late Pat Hegnauer, it opened in 1978. From the beginning, the theater was a feisty group, mixing major plays with small comedies.
When you went to 2nd Story, you knew that you would see a production that would not be filled with upscale backgrounds, and you also knew that the groups, from the director to ticket takers, had worked hard, and loved their work, too.
So, what happened? Why had a small theater that lead the way in being the best of the “Off- Trinity” groups that sprung up in the 1980s ended? Under Shea’s direction, the company was still fine, still doing provocative theater, and still going its own way.
I put that question to Director Shea before the final performance Sunday. Having celebrated his 60th birthday the day before, Shea was as clear and self-confident as ever.
Seated in the midst of his final 2nd Story set, he blamed the demise on a major change in the way people look for entertainment. "These days," he said, "there is so much else to see."
“People,” he added, “are not present anymore. There’s so much else to see, like Netflix and Amazon Prime. It’s increasingly difficult to get people off the couch and into the theater, not just my theater, any theater. It’s just more difficult to get anybody in."
"People are graying . . . dying! And they're not being replaced by a new set of theatergoers. When we started – the first 10 years - people wanted to go to the theater. It was part of their lives."
“These days the thing to do is have an ‘event’ to get people to come to the theater.” He paused for a moment, then added, “It’s just been hard.”
The funny thing is that 2nd Story’s final show was a prime production. Under Shea’s direction the two actors, Rachel Tondreault and Cam Torres, put together crisp, solid work. The full house ended the evening with a standing ovation. The crowd was cheering the play, but also knowing that they had seen the end of the trail for 2nd Story Theater.
It has been a great ride, but it’s over and Rhode Island has lost a gem in its always changing artistic field.
Bill Gale covers the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.