Defining their community space

Gamm Theatre settles into Warwick

Posted 8/9/23

“It’s so much more room to breathe,” said Gail Hulbert, the Marketing Director of Gamm Theatre, as she gestured to the black box theater.

Gamm Theatre relocated from Pawtucket …

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Defining their community space

Gamm Theatre settles into Warwick


“It’s so much more room to breathe,” said Gail Hulbert, the Marketing Director of Gamm Theatre, as she gestured to the black box theater.

Gamm Theatre relocated from Pawtucket to Warwick in 2018, taking over the space formerly occupied by Ocean State Theatre and making it their own. In the years since, they have transformed the space to align with their mission.

They’ve also been able to expand their reach. Hulbert said that attendance has increased from Warwick, Cranston and parts of southern Rhode Island.

“We’re not just doing plays,” Artistic Director Tony Estrella said in a recent interview. “We’re a community space and we’re part of a rich cultural ecology. Moving here to Warwick puts us in the center of the state…we’re able to draw more.”

Estrella and Hulbert walked through the theater, pointing out the various spaces and renovations.

Black Box Theater

The black box theater was cluttered, filled with set pieces and racks of chairs. Estrella explained that they built the theater on the footprint of Ocean State Theatre’s auditorium stage because Gamm puts on “epic plays in intimate spaces.”

Estrella recalled that when he first started with Gamm as an actor in Providence twenty years ago, they had 64 chairs. Now, the black box seats 185. He likes how it “still feels intimate in the space.”

“I always say that on stage, I like to look up to the back row, which is only 8 rows away, and be able to look you in the eye and say hi,” he added. “It’s that kind of thing where you get to make that connection with people.”

Each season, all five shows are performed in the black box theater. Season 39, the fifth season in the Warwick location, begins in September. Estrella said that selecting the plays for a season is one of the hardest parts of his job because he has such a long wish list. There are tangible constraints like size, expense, rights and number of actors that narrow that list. Sometimes, he’ll be moved and guided by a particular theme.

For this upcoming season, Estrella was inspired by plays that are “ripe for revival,” which in his eyes have a reputation and are several generations old. For example, they are putting on two great American plays that are 20 years old: Topdog/Underdog, which recently left Broadway, and Doubt: A Parable which will go on Broadway in the spring. Other shows in the upcoming season include Hangmen, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Twelfth Night.

Hulbert explained that the subscription model– in which a patron purchases tickets for the entire season– fits really well within the black box theater and the five-show season.

“The subscriber base is that group of people who say ‘we trust you,’” Hulbert added. “They might not even know anything about the shows– sometimes there’s a title familiarity but sometimes there’s none at all. They’re willing to say ‘let me see what happens.’”

She said that about half the  ticket sales come from subscriptions, and for not-for-profit theaters like Gamm, ticket sales make up less than half of their $2.4 million operating budget. Grants, individual donations and corporate sponsorships make up the balance.

Hulbert added that accessibility is a key tenet to their mission. She explained that there are a series of discounts including pay-what-you-wish Fridays, student discounts and community partnership discounts.

Right next door to the black box theater is the auditorium where Gamm hosts their annual show A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play and their free summer movie series.

Below the stage

Hulbert and Estrella walked through the open downstairs space filled with multiple racks of clothes from different eras, props and furniture. A fake Christmas tree rested against the shelved wall. Laundry machines were tucked in the corner by the kitchenette. They explained how they transformed this area into both storage and a space for the actors.

When pulling back the curtain to reveal the mirrored dressing room, Estrella explained that once they officially became an Actor’s Equity Theater in 2005, they had to follow specific regulations. In addition to providing union-mandated wages, healthcare and pensions, they also had to have dressing rooms of a certain size complete with a shower, something they included in their renovations of the space.

“It means that you’re becoming a fully professional theater which means it costs a lot more money,” Estrella said with a laugh. “It makes us able to do better, more expansive work.”

He added that being a union member draws in more experienced actors because of the benefits. They can afford to be more settled and committed.

“As a professional actor, if I’m just trying to make a living off of acting work, that means I’m hustling all the time,” Estrella said. “People are bouncing around from theater to theater.”

He added that some actors have become “resident artists,” sticking around and acting in multiple productions in a season. That said, there is a rotating cast and staff due to fluctuating needs and auditions. Hulbert said that there are 14 full-time employees and about 100 production staff who come in and out depending on season.

Gamm also supports aspiring actors and theater enthusiasts. This upcoming season will mark the third cohort of the Gamm Fellowship Program, an opportunity for emerging artists of color who graduated from Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island to experience professional theater and develop mentoring relationships.

The program involves a year of residency in the individual's area of expertise. According to Sarah Ploskina, Director of Education, this years’ fellows include a stage manager, an actor/educator and an actor.

Erik Robles was a member of the first cohort of the fellowship. He said the immersive acting experience was an “osmosis of learning.” When he wasn’t rehearsing or helping out with other elements, he was observing.

“I took it as an opportunity for me to immerse myself in the world of professional artists and productions,” Robles said.

Robles graduated from URI with a degree in Philosophy and an Acting minor, and Estrella was his acting teacher in senior year. He considered Estrella his “father in the theater” and was grateful for Gamm’s mentorship overall.

“They’ve allowed me to see opportunities for myself that I didn’t know existed,” he added.

Since completing the fellowship, Robles has appeared in many professional productions. For example, he played Claudio in Commonwealth Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. In August, he will be attending Yale to study acting in graduate school.

“I want to continue inspiring people like myself, people of color especially,” Robles said. “Let them know that they have a voice, they’re heard and that there’s possibilities for them.”


When climbing the stairwell to the office space, Hulbert explained how excited Gamm is to be in the Warwick community. She said that the COVID-19 pandemic stunted the original development of community partnerships, but over time, they’ve worked hard to find their place.

“We’re really trying to cultivate the community within Warwick,” Hulbert said. “This is for you,” she added, motioning to the theater. She added that they have a promotion for Warwick residents–$25 off a season subscription using code BEACON25. (The offer for $25 for Warwick residents applies ONLY to people who have never subscribed to a Gamm season at the  Warwick location. Also, people must call or visit the box office to redeem the offer. )

Above the theater, Gamm staff members typed away at their computers in the sunny office space. Ploskina slipped into a chair at the conference table. She said that in her year of working at Gamm, they’ve “built a number of partnerships.”

Two years ago, they started with an afterschool program at Norwood Elementary. Through the success of the program and word of mouth, more schools wanted to participate, according to Ploskina. This past year, fourth and fifth graders from four elementary schools: Greenwood, Sherman, Hoxsie and Norwood worked with Gamm teaching artists two afternoons a week for 8 to 10 weeks to build their theater skills and to put on a community show. Sherman and Hoxsie both made their own creative productions of the Phantom Tollbooth. 

Ploskina also explained that they also have a partnership with the local libraries, leading storytimes and theater skills. She added that the Providence Public Library is exploring an in-depth program for middle school students.

“Obviously there’s a natural home for our storytime and drama activities associated in the public libraries, so I think that was just a natural connection that we discovered,” Ploskina added.

Gamm also hosts its own storytimes in addition to other educational programming. For example, they were awarded a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to subsidize student matinees for their upcoming performance of Twelfth Night in the fall.

Hulbert and Estrella entered one of the studio rooms on the same level as the offices. Estrella explained that these spaces double as audition rooms, rehearsal spaces and summer camp classrooms, motioning to the whimsical props pushed up against a window. He said that while the sets are constructed in the black box theater downstairs, he’ll use tape on the floor to make a pretend stage. Estrella also said that they host acting and theater classes for adults throughout the year in these studio rooms.


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