It’s a banner year for FirstWorks, the Providence-based arts organization that curates a variety of artistic experiences for local audiences. Now in its tenth anniversary season, the group is looking back at a decade of phenomenal growth as it also looks to the future, says founder and executive artistic director Kathleen Pletcher.
Over the group’s ten year arc, they’ve gone from reaching 125 students to over 4,000 with its educational initiatives; the e-mail list reach has grown from 5,000 to 21,000 subscribers in the past two years alone; and police estimates of the 2013 FirstWorks festival estimated 40,000 visitors drawn downtown.
“It’s so exciting,” Kathleen says, “and really interesting, if you look back at the beginning and our belief that first, the arts could be part of transforming our community, and second that audiences would get excited by the artists we were bringing in and we’d start to have deep relationships with those artists and they would want to do new work for our audiences here – that’s all come to pass.”
Of all the arts organizations in the state, part of what makes FirstWorks unique is its comprehensive partnerships and relationships with its artists, its audiences and its collaborators. Rather than bringing one type of artist or art to the area, Kathleen says the organization aims to create a blend of artistic icons from outside the state with locally-grown talent – “this year, we’re calling it Legends and Local Luminaries” – and to take the impact of those talents off the stage and onto a more intimate level with the audiences.
“It’s really the multidisciplinary aspect of FirstWorks [that audiences connect to],” she says. “People will tell us that in addition to the performances, some of the experiences they’ve had talking about the performance the day after or during the up close sessions with the artists following the performance can be life-changing.”
This month, one of the legends on tap to perform for Providence audiences is renowned jazz violinist Regina Carter. “She’s an icon, the best jazz violinist of her generation,” says Kathleen, who saw a presentation of some of Regina’s newer work at Birdland in New York last fall. “I was really taken in by the music, but also her curiosity and quest and investigation into who she is and her heritage, and how that fed back into her music. It felt like she was at a really exciting time in her career.”
In addition to the accessibility of Regina’s music – making her a natural draw for not only jazz aficionados, but new audience members as well – it was this exploration of her past that told Kathleen she’d be a natural fit for FirstWorks. In her most recent work, Regina weaves together an intimate personal narrative tracing back along her family history: “She’s experimenting with the southern comfort reinterpretation of Cajun fiddle music, coal miner songs and contemporary tunes,” explains Kathleen. “It’s a really interesting mash-up.”
This kind of performance – and the work that is put into molding it – is ripe for the before and after discussions and workshops that take place in all FirstWorks presentations.
Kathleen says that Regina will be an important part of the FirstWorks educational offerings as she works with students in Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket schools, exploring the connection between jazz and math. Community scholars will also join Regina for panel discussions surrounding her performance, giving attendees a chance to hear them speak about “the ethnographic, personal exploration and the examined life – interpreting life through musical storytelling,” says Kathleen.
“Artists, on every level, are essentially communicators,” says Kathleen. “They’re passionate about engaging people with the ideas and arts that they’re creating. This has been a really wonderful, rich kind of way to approach our idea that providing world class arts builds community.”
FirstWorks Tenth Anniversary Season | RISD Auditorium, 17 Canal Walk | October 18 at 8pm Featuring Regina Carter | 421-4278