Thriving Warren Theater Had Its Roots In Newport
by James Merolla, Newport This Week
The 2nd Story Theatre first drew breath along a seedy Long Wharf in a different age, alongside a harbor with a decidedly different ambience. The shows were good, but the atmosphere stunk (more on that later).
The thriving enterprise that has been 2nd Story Theatre in downtown Warren for 15 years took off in a tiny space above Harry’s Harbour Front Club, a popular Newport hot spot.
Pat Hegnauer, Ed Shea and Lynn Collinson opened their fledgling theater group in the summer of 1978 at the former Treadway (now the Newport Harbor Hotel and Marina) on the waterfront. They soon moved to Harry’s – to the second story above the restaurant – ambitiously doing seven to eight plays a year, light fare in the summer catering to tourists, with meatier works in the winter.
Although the troupe relocated to Warren in 2001, Newport This Week covered all local productions in the early years, with reviewers such as Eileen Warburton, Melissa Jo Reeves, Mairin Martin and Norma Bailey opining on its many shows.
“We were also lucky enough to have fine photographers living in Newport at the time – Ron Manville and Sal Lopes, who is now a famous name in his field,” said Warburton, on the talent available to capture images for the articles. Warburton went from reviewing 2nd Story seasons to discussing them publicly with the audience.
She started in November 1980 as the theater critic for NTW, with John Pantalone as editor. She recalls how dynamic and active 2nd Story was in its Newport iteration. Ed Shea was her first interview, and she his. “We were both so nervous our hands shook.”
Warburton has been active in local theater circles, in multiple arenas, for decades. “I went to at least one opening a week until 1986. From the late ‘80s into the early ‘90s I was the producer for TRIST (The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre). In 2005, Ed Shea asked me to become 2nd Story’s Humanities Scholar and we started an essay and discussion program under a RICH (Rhode Island Council for the Humanities) grant,” said Warburton. “This has evolved, but, 10 years later, I’m still doing an essay for each production and a Discussion Sunday for those regulars who love to discuss the play. I call them my ‘groupies.’ ”
The author/historian reminded that there was no Marriott in Newport when the theater began, and Long Wharf “was delightfully seedy. The bar was downstairs, very much a waterfront working bar. There were narrow wooden stairs to the upstairs – an attic, basically. You absolutely would not get fire department approval for this today!” she said. “The house was tiny, some 60 or 70 seats, if that. The stage was a postage stamp, one of the reasons that Pat [Hegnauer] specialized in small, psychological plays of two or three characters.
“Usually, there was little in the way of set and it was done on a shoestring. Evenings always opened with the stage manager announcing that the front row had to keep their feet off the stage to avoid tripping the actors,” said Warburton.
She recalled with some animation that she once interviewed Tom Roberts on the docks (for the show “Good Evening”) in the summer of 1981. “It was right across Long Wharf from the sanitation station and every time the breeze shifted, it totally stunk,” said Warburton.
Newport was rife with theatrical productions in the early 1980s, and a stash of little theatre companies operated out of hotels and bars before moving on: 2nd Story, TIFOBET (The Incredibly Far Off Broadway Ensemble Theater), TRIST, the Players’ Guild, the Children’s Theatre.
Theatrical listings in Newport This Week dated Aug. 21, 1981 had performances across the city in venues ranging from a park to a mansion.
“Actors and tech people generally had their home base, but also floated over to do a role or two at one of the other companies,” said Warburton.
Space was, and remains, the big factor. “The Casino Theatre had occasional Players’ Guild productions, but it was not a satisfactory house in those days. Swanhurst was a darling little theater for TRIST and often TIFOBET – despite the skunks,” laughed Warburton, at the trigger of another olfactory memory.
Rhode Island’s strict permitting and fire codes were still 25 years away. “The fire department wasn’t very particular then. You could perform anywhere without big fees or regulations. Companies were forever doing a few plays in some bar, then getting thrown out and moving elsewhere,” she added. “The reason it all worked was that space was cheap and available. This was after the Navy pullout in 1972 and real estate was still at the bottom. Once real estate began to boom again, that was the death knell.”
After Harry’s Harbour Front closed, the group moved for a few months to Connell Highway, to what is now the Newport Playhouse. They went dormant in 1983, as many went off to explore options elsewhere, but re-formed in Providence in 1986.
Newport actress Susan Bowen Powers joined the group in 1979. “My first show with them, ironically, was ‘And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little,’” said Powers. The irony she mentions is because Powers is appearing in the same show again at 2nd Story in Warren, now running through mid-May. “The theater space in Newport was intimate; the stage and audience were close and the energy was electric,” said Powers.
Could the city support a theater company downtown again?
“I spent years, literally years, trying to secure performance space in Newport with my cronies,” said Warburton. “I sincerely urge you as a newspaper to publicly advocate for the Opera House as community performance space. Such a space, if well managed, could not only support the local performing groups (including IMC and the Jazz Festival) and offer a house for traveling companies, but it would stimulate new artists and efforts. “She added, “Other area companies would put traveling shows into it. I know that Trinity Rep has for some time had an eye on performing in Newport for some shows. I’m a firm believer in, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ ”