URI Theatre Department faculty and guest artists are innovating the New England theater scene and giving students opportunities to practice their craft with the pros. It’s never been a better time to be a theater major.
By Marybeth Reilly-McGreen
The Theatre Department is buzzing. Students run lines outside the Robert E. Will Theatre, sing in G Studio, and, in J Studio, double paddle turn and twist to Hairspray’s “The Nicest Kids in Town.” No finals fatigue here; it’s opening-night energy.
With more than five productions each year, URI’s theater production schedule is on par with a professional theater’s, says department chair David T. Howard. Without the budget, though. “We’ll do a whole show for around the price of a single costume on Broadway,” Howard notes.
How? Hard work, dedicated faculty, and a group of artists—most of them URI graduates—recruited both for their skills as educators and their impressive theater pedigrees.
Tony Estrella ’93
Theatre 411: Acting
Artistic Director, The GAMM Theatre
On a sunny Friday afternoon, David Howard and Tony Estrella chat in Howard’s office about a recent theater graduate working in software systems processing. Inadvertently, their conversation turns to the question that dogs theater professionals, their students, and their students’ parents: What’s the ROI on the B.F.A.? “The thing about theater is, you build skills you can use in new ways,” Estrella says. “Theater is an entrée, a foray, into a lot of different worlds.”
Estrella is in his 17th year as artistic director of the GAMM Theatre in Warwick, Rhode Island, and in his 21st year teaching at URI. Students will tell you that Estrella’s approach is to treat students as professionals, collaborators engaged in essential work: the exploration of radical, challenging, and even ugly ideas. “An art form needs a place where it’s safe to be unsafe,” Estrella says. “There’s a danger in art. It has the power to unsettle, to provoke, and to entertain, of course.
“Great playwrights are looking at the true complexity of ideas and making them public. Our responsibility is to challenge, provoke, illuminate, and entertain,” Estrella says. “Theater is an act of citizenship. It is an act of engaging with the community.”
And engaging through teaching, Estrella says, has made him better at his craft. “You learn so much. You have to be honest—interrogating, practicing what you preach, examining, articulating, and making it all plain to students who are not as experienced. It makes you a better actor. No question.”
Estrella’s method for teaching acting is rigorous engagement with the material. “You’re using the text, the language, doing a deep dive, a close reading. You follow that with your own experience and what those experiences cost you. It’s not always a direct one-to-one correlation, of course,” Estrella notes. “None of us has died yet, but we have to die on stage. You build off what you have.
“After all, what is our job as actors but to walk in each other’s shoes?”
Kira Hawkridge ’12
Director, URI Theatre’s Women and War
Founding Artistic Director, OUT LOUD Theatre
You will find URI graduates working in almost every theater in the state, from the established—Trinity Repertory Company, Theatre By The Sea, and the GAMM Theatre—to up-and-comers such as the Wilbury Theatre Group, OUT LOUD Theatre, the Burbage Theatre Company, and the Epic Theatre Company.
One reason URI’s theater graduates are sought-after is the nature of URI’s B.F.A. program, which requires concentrated study in acting, design and theater technology, directing, and stage management. While students specialize in one of the four areas, they must be familiar with all.
It’s an education directors appreciate, says Hawkridge, who directed URI Theatre’s production of Women and War last fall. OUT LOUD’s last ensemble boasted four URI alumni among the eight members. “That’s a testament to how the department creates a community that people like me want to return to,” Hawkridge says. “There’s something about how we were all trained that is special. All students participate in every role at least once: costume shop, box office, design, auditions for shows.”
Students develop an appreciation for one another’s work and have ample opportunities to do the work they want to do. “And jobs lead to other jobs and collaborations are born,” Hawkridge says.
Eric Lutes ’91
Theatre 413: Acting for the Camera
Sitcoms: Frasier, Ellen, Caroline in the City
New movie: Vault
For Eric Lutes, deciding to become an actor was an act of rebellion. His father wanted him to become a painter, but Lutes was drawn to the stage. Ultimately, his father, marine artist John D. Lutes, embraced his son’s decision. “My father said, ‘Go. Do it,’” Lutes says.
Lutes’ first television show was the NBC juggernaut, Frasier, starring former Cheers star Kelsey Grammer. That gig led to a lead role on the NBC sitcom Caroline in the City, which ran for four seasons and was in syndication for 11 years. In his 30-plus-year career, Lutes estimates he’s been in nearly 200 sitcom episodes in addition to feature film work. This June, he plays a gangster in the film, Vault. Set in the 1970s, the film chronicles the notorious Bonded Vault heist, in which thieves made off with $30 million from a fur storage facility in Providence, Rhode Island, which was being used as a bank by members of the Raymond Patriarca crime family. Martin Scorsese is one of the film’s backers.
“The main thing I try to instill in students is that you’ve got to keep showing up. And being on time is a huge thing for me,” Lutes says. “After that, it really is about the work. Do your homework. The only time I was nervous for auditions was when I wasn’t prepared. No one else is going to do it for you.”
And be multifaceted. “Don’t just be an actor. Have other interests. You bring all that to acting anyway, and there’s so much else to life,” Lutes says.
Joseph Short ’06
Theatre 213, 313, 417: Voice and Movement Production Technician for the Office for the Arts at Harvard; Production Manager for the Gloucester Stage Company; Host, High School Quiz Show: Rhode Island
“URI is driving the Rhode Island theater scene.”
Joe Short teaches presence. “Voice and body are the two tools of the performer,” he says. “Sophomore year is spent talking about how to use those tools through, in part, the study of habits and tendencies. Junior year is the study of rhetoric and pitch, how to format an argument, and how to reflect all with the body. Senior year those skills are further refined.
“We move you through increasingly rigorous training to extract the best actor, director, or production manager,” Short says. “It’s an intensive and personalized journey.”
And local theaters are the beneficiaries. “It’s exciting that there are so many opportunities right now,” Short says. “And many of those opportunities are in companies and productions being started, managed, or influenced by our alums.”
Rachel Walshe ’01
Theatre 211, 321, 338G, 383
Acting and Playwriting
Director and Teaching Artist, The GAMM Theatre
Classes, rehearsals, and soccer practice: These are the things that occupy Rachel Walshe’s mind at the moment. She’s directing Gloria at the GAMM Theatre and casting URI Theatre’s production of The Wolves, a drama about teammates on a high school girls’ soccer team. She’s got the URI women’s soccer team consulting on the play and is arranging for the student actors to attend the team’s 6 a.m. practices.
The University’s only Rhodes scholar, Walshe always intended to teach at a public institution. “My four years as an undergraduate were transformative. I feel I became me here,” Walshe says. “So I wanted to work with undergraduates, where, I believe, teaching matters most.”
“I get to practice what I do all day, every day. I coach actors, I think structurally, I use practical techniques, and I get hired to direct
And Walshe’s students get to see the collaboration among URI’s faculty and guest artists on a daily basis—from the inception to the conclusion of a project. “They’re witnessing discussions with professional artists who are doing this for real, figuring things out in the moment. It’s a tremendous benefit having that kind of contact with your collaborators.”
And what does she hope students take away from the experience?
“I want students to recognize the value of the arts, to recognize that the act of storytelling is as primal as anything else we would consider essential to the human experience,” Walshe says. “We tell each other stories as a survival skill.”
Joshua Short ’08
Founder and Artistic Director,
The Wilbury Theatre Group
Two years after graduation, Josh Short (yes, he’s Joe’s brother) founded the Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence as a way to act and be in plays more often. Eight years later, he accepted a 2018 National Theatre Company Grant from the American Theatre Wing—the organization behind the Tony Awards. Trinity Repertory Company is the only other Rhode Island theater that has received this recognition from the American Theatre Wing. “Our goal is to become a nationally recognized theater that provides a platform to show new work from diverse voices,” Short says. Short credits URI with hammering home discipline and commitment to the craft.
“Storytelling, creating empathy: It’s a noble thing.”
“URI’s theater students are trained to work hard. They have an understanding of what it takes to be good.”
The Wilbury’s commitment to new work and diverse voices extends to education outreach, youth programs, including a “pay-what-you-will” acting class; Camp Shakesweird, a two-week camp for children ages 8 to 11; and the Youth Playmaking Program, an all-expenses-covered opportunity for teens interested in producing theater. And through the annual Providence Fringe Festival, the Wilbury Group and other arts organizations draw more than 250 artists from around the world to Providence for a weeklong celebration of the arts.
What’s the ROI on the B.F.A.?
URI’s B.F.A. program requires concentrated study in acting, design and theater technology, directing, and stage management. While students specialize in one of the four areas, they must be familiar with all. That’s an education directors appreciate. It also prepares URI grads to enter the professional world—in theater or in a variety of other fields.
Editor’s Note: There’s a Method to Our Spelling Madness
Why do we sometimes write ‘theatre’ and other times ‘theater’? The answer dates to the 1800s, when Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary established the American spelling of many words, like ‘color’ instead of ‘colour,’ and ‘center’ instead of ‘centre.’ Likewise, theater, spelled ‘-er,’ has become (mostly) standard in the U.S. But many theaters and schools of theater—including URI, the GAMM, and others—honor the British ‘-re’ spelling. So when we write about them, we use their spelling. But when we write about theater in general, we use the standard American ‘-er’ spelling.