The Barker Playhouse is a historic treasure that many longtime Providenizens have yet to uncover. Located at the corner of Benefit and Transit streets, the Barker houses The Players, America’s “oldest little theatre company.” Thanks to a $100,000 RISCA grant, the theatre is currently undergoing extensive renovations to make its 166-year-old theatre physically accessible to visitors of all mobility levels (ADA-compliant). At the same time, efforts are underway to bring in more of the local community and increase membership.
The Players incorporated in 1909 and moved into their current space in 1934. Three buildings interconnect to house the troupe. The main theatre building was originally St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, and the adjoining structure storing props, costumes and related workshops was once a Portuguese men’s club. Underneath the theatre is a large green room that is also the “laboratory” for their actor’s studio events.
In addition to the green room, the Barker offers two more rehearsal spaces, rooms for props and set construction, costume design and storage, “Lydia’s Library” of plays (in honor of previous longtime General Manager Lydia Matteson) and more. The Barker is home to one of the largest costume inventories in the state, often coordinating with other theatre companies to loan out items.
“The facility itself is spectacular to work in as an actor,” says Liz Messier, president of The Players and member/actor for 37 years. “Members can switch off participating in every aspect of a production; the only thing I haven’t done yet is lighting.”
“We aren’t a repertory company,” General Manager Bill Applegate notes. “Each show is auditioned for uniquely so that we can get the best possible cast. We advertise auditions, and sometimes people wander in off the street if we leave the back door open. And of course, anyone can be a member of the audience.”
The intimate 100-person theatre walls are shifting from white to taupe, and a battle with the local historic committee finally yielded new and larger staircases leading to the restrooms downstairs (the original tiny curved ones, although a charming historical detail for a church, did not allow for more than one average body to go up or downstairs at once in either direction). Removing the internal box office/ticket booth to make space for a countertop and potential future bar is another renovation project.
Although largely quiet over the stifling summer months (with no air conditioning), the Barker comes alive again during the fall with all three rehearsal spaces in use every night in anticipation of the first show of its 108th season, Time Stands Still, on October 14. This Tony Award nominated play, written by Donald Margulies, examines relationships through the lens of two Iraq War correspondents. Sarah, a photographer, was injured by a bomb while on assignment and her boyfriend James, a reporter, is overwhelmed by the guilt of having to leave her in Iraq alone.
The Players invite anyone interested to come attend a show, a reception, a bimonthly Shakespeare Night reading or to meet with one of its members and learn about getting involved. The Barker already hosts benefits and drives for local charity organizations and is now teaming up with the local Rotary Club as well as schools in the area.
“It’s such a welcoming group,” notes former president and current Project Coordinator Kathy Oliverio. “It’s like a family here.”
Time Stands Still
October 14-16, 21-23
400 Benefit Street