Warwick, RI – Ocean State Theatre Company’s financial ills remain a specter for one board member, who warns meager community and state support threaten the Gamm’s future there, but the successor theater’s leadership is confident their community following will lead them to success.
Some of the Jefferson Boulevard venue’s troubles last May stemmed from a lack of support from the community, according to Andrew Cohen, who served as chairman of the Board of Directors for Ocean State Theatre Company.
In an announcement shortly after Ocean State Theater closed, Cohen explained the organization was unable to come to terms with the owner of the building while re-negotiating new lease terms and debt structure.
According to a formal complaint and eviction notice filed on May 19, Mutual Properties 1245 Jefferson LLC, the building’s owner, said the theater company owes $860,908.58 in back rent and additional charges as of May 17.
The complaint said OSTC was responsible for paying $21,114 per month in rent and additional charges, suggesting the theater company neglected to pay the equivalent of more than three years of rent.
The complaint also said Mutual Properties sought possession of the building, as well as back rent and additional rent totaling $860,908.58. The landlord had also sought interest, costs and attorneys fees. A receiver is now handling the situation.
Tax filings from 2014 showed OSTC was more than $2.2 million in debt at the time.
“We were all heartbroken,” Cohen recalled of the decision made by the board to suspend the theater’s operations. “It was so unexpected.”
“It’s really a loss to the community,” Cohen said. “It’s a shame but we said it from day minus one, if the community wasn’t going to support us, then there was no future. While the city of Warwick was very supportive, one of the things they did not have was money. I came to be educated that Rhode Island is the least giving state in the country.”
Cohen said OSTC had struggled from the very beginning. The company, which used to produce shows at Theatre by the Sea in Matunuck, entered into a lease for the Jefferson Boulevard property in 2012.
“We finished the public spaces, but offices and dressing rooms and things like that never got finished,” Cohen explained. The renovations left the organization “with a ton of debt,” according to Cohen.
“We worked out deals with everybody and we were paying off debt on a slow but steady basis all the time we were there,” Cohen said. “We got to a point where we could not pay the rent in full.”
OSTC also rented apartments for the actors and those fees were paid in full to the landlord every month, Cohen said. “He was getting a pretty good chunk of money from us.”
Cohen said OSTC was so strapped for cash that they lacked a proper budget for marketing.
“Getting Warwick familiar with (our) existence was a challenge,” Cohen stated. “We didn’t fill as many seats as we wanted to or needed to.”
Cohen noted the shows which were performed at Ocean State were hugely successful with both critics and audiences.
The state of Rhode Island also failed to provide support through grants for the arts.
“Everybody got money but us,” Cohen said. “We got, in 5 years, $2,500.”
Ocean State Theatre Company was among the recipients of a cultural facilities grant award in 2016. OSTC was awarded $240,000. The Gamm was recently awarded a $300,000 grant by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.
Cohen declined to comment on the RISCA grant.
Compounding matters, he said, was hostile treatment shown to Ocean State by other venues. Cohen said that not only did rival theater groups not help OSTC, but they were “working against our success.” Cohen did not specify which theaters had been antagonistic toward Ocean State.
Representatives of various theaters contacted by Warwick Post denied Cohen’s allegation.
Tom Parrish, executive director of Trinity Repertory Company, said the administration and creative personnel had been very supportive of OSTC.
“Trinity Rep. offers the local theater community access to our extensive stock of costumes and props, and has provided opportunities for cross promotion and awareness building,” Parrish noted. “I know that OSTC’s closure was a loss to a number of our artists and students that found employment opportunities there.”
“The OSTC leadership frequently came to our opening nights, and we shared resources whenever asked. I know that our resident actor, Fred Sullivan, worked there each season, as well as at the Gamm,” added Artistic Director Curt Columbus.
“We were all very saddened by their closing,” said Tony Estrella, Artistic Director of Pawtucket’s Gamm Theatre.