BURRILLVILLE – Before COVID-19 brought the theater world to a sudden halt last March, Holly Dumaine-Picard was hard at work on East Avenue, readying a cast for the spring musical performance of Junie B. Jones.
After a two-year effort to revitalize the Assembly Theatre, shows were selling out. The once quiet stage was now bustling with educational programs and charity performances. Popular food truck events were drawing new patrons to the theater grounds.
But the stage at the 354-seat venue has been mostly dark for the past 12 months. Dumaine-Picard, chairperson of the volunteer group the runs the venue, Patrons of the Assembly Theatre, has been left waiting with the rest of the world for the threat from the virus to pass.
In the coming weeks, it looks like that may finally change.
Inspiration Performing Arts Company has utilized the venue for a virtual production of Godspell, and the group is tentatively planning to host a premiere of the performance Easter weekend, with a meet and greet with cast members. While the region may not be ready for a full-fledged theater experience just yet, Dumaine-Picard hopes to host the viewing of the production with limited capacity, following safety precautions and distancing guests.
“That’s our way of doing a soft opening of the theater,” Dumaine-Picard said Wednesday, at a meeting with members of the Burrillville Lions Club.
Dumaine-Picard, a guest speaker at the meeting, told the group of efforts to revitalize the nearly-century old venue.
One of four buildings gifted to town by mill owner and philanthropist Austin T. Levy, the theater is managed by an appointed Board of Administration. Historically, it was used as a community space, a movie theater and a space for live performances, but in recent years, the group had focused on maintenance and rental to outside groups.
That is, until two years ago when the volunteer, community-focused Patrons stepped in.
“Our goal is to bring quality arts to Burrillville and the surrounding community,” Dumaine-Picard said of the Patrons.
The group received permission to serve alcohol at the Assembly and obtained an official non-profit designation. In 2019, they launched AssemblyACT a theater company for-in house productions and education programs.
They’ve also helped other theater groups by providing space for performances, hosted community yard sales and charitable events, and collaborated with PVD Food Trucks to bring food and entertainment to the surrounding grounds.
“There’s a lot of theater groups that just don’t have a home,” Dumaine-Picard said. “We really want to boost that collaboration amongst the groups.”
Their most successful fundraiser, a cabaret-style event with more than 60 performers, raised some $5,000 for the Izzy Foundation.
“It was wonderful,” said Dumaine-Picard. “We’re always looking to support charitable causes.”
More volunteers, she said, are always needed at the theater, whether it’s to hand out flyers, pop popcorn, paint sets or help someone find their seat.
“The more the merrier. We try to utilize everyone’s unique talents,” said Dumaine-Picard, noting that volunteering comes with the added bonus of getting to see the shows.
For Godspell, the small cast of 12 performers and three-member production crew with Inspiration was tested weekly for the virus. The theater troop’s first virtual production put on in collaboration with Advanced Production and Design was the Wizard of Oz, which streamed online in January .
Guests will be able to pay to view the performance online from the safety of home, with six showings planned for Easter weekend.
And if all goes well, locals can also get a small taste of the theater experience with a premiere at the theater and a chance to meet the actors.
“People want to support the Assembly Theater and come to the show. I’ve done my work to figure out how to do it safely,” Dumaine-Picard said. “We’ll follow whatever COVID restrictions are in place. We have plenty of fresh air coming through.”
In addition to the return of food trucks, she said the education series is also coming back this summer, and the theater plans to take part in the Burrillville Arts Festival this fall. There’s also talk of hosting “nostalgia night,” with footage from events that happened in the past – such as Burrillville High School senior productions.
“That is one of the ideas is to kind of resurrect the history of the theater and bring it back to life,” said Dumaine-Picard. “I want to bring back whatever happy memories are in that theater for people.”
The Patrons are also working on a project to expand the theater lobby and add handicap accessibility for both the audience and performers.
“I’m hoping with the community support that becomes a reality some day,” Dumaine-Picard said.
Lions members thanked the speaker for her efforts.
“The food trucks are wonderful,” said Lion Club member Scott Blanchette. “A building of that caliper – it seemed like a sin to just let it sit there for years.”
“If you’ve ever been there you know what a lovely icon of the town it is,” said Tom Tatro, a Lion Club member who also volunteers with the Patrons. “Even today you can perform without a microphone and be heard throughout. It’s a great asset to the town.”
“I fell in love with it the moment I stepped into it,” said Dumaine-Picard. “We all try to really be passionate about it and we have a good time.”
Tickets for the premiere of Godspell will be available for purchase online and NRI NOW will publish further details on the event once it is officially announced.