VROOOOM! A stylish triker.
It’s Friday afternoon and the heavy August rainstorms have faded into an evening sky radiant with absurdly pink clouds. Below, beads of moisture reflect the light and a wet electric glow emanates from what is best described as a Japanese tea garden-on-meth. An old Apple II computer, painted maroon, stands in the dirt amidst a bed of plants. Its screen is opaque, its tiny fans long silent.
This DIY Xanadu of crumbling brick and lush green abuts the old Nicholson File building, part of a larger manufacturing complex on Providence’s West Side that once supplied much of post-Civil War America with various metal tools. Whirrs and shouts punctuated with heavy thuds echo within the building’s walls — sounds that mix with the canting of crickets and drone of the highway in the near distance. Inside, a scrappy crew of volunteers are hard at work building Wooly Town.
But what is Wooly Town?
A literal definition might be “an immersive arts carnival featuring everything from a puppet cockfight to a tricycle race course to a Salon Saloon (‘you can get drunk and styled simultaneously’) to a three-hole miniature golf course — all of it on the 3.2 acres of the Steel Yard, the event/performance/education space and production studio near the banks of the Woonasquatucket River.”
A 35-foot geodesic dome, two stages, a small orchard of glowing LED-on-PVC-pipe “trees,” plus plenty of noise from a small army of musicians and performers should make the Town difficult to miss when it opens this weekend.
On the other hand, “it’s hard to define what Wooly Town is. It really depends on who shows up,” says David Allyn, a volunteer for the event and ceramicist who maintains a studio space in the building.
“We try to preach this culture of participation,” he explains. “If you have a vision for an event, a game or some kind of challenge, this is an opportunity for you to come out and showcase your talents. We are less interested in having people attend; we really want to activate the spectator.”
The first incarnation of the event appeared back in 2005, says Wooly Town founder Sam White. “It was basically a backyard variety show that we threw in the Steelyard,” he says.
But what started out as a very small event has seen a tremendous rate of growth, mainly by word of mouth, says J.D. Fontanella, another longtime volunteer. “At one point, our attendance figures were more or less doubling every year, three years in a row,” he says. This year, they’re expecting around 5000 people over the span of the three days. Some will come from as far away as Baltimore and Virginia.
For its part, the city of Providence, White says, has been more than accommodating of what could, in most municipalities, be viewed as a potential legal and permit-dispensing quagmire.
“The great thing about Providence is that everyone is down for whatever,” he says. “In another city it would be more of a pain in the ass, but here you’ve got that post-industrial vacuum and the creative energy coming out of the schools. There’s a permissive spirit.”