Living up to theoretician Gordon Craig's ideal of the "perishable" theatre as one nimble, flexible, and light on its feet, Providence's Perishable Theatre remained fresh for its 28-year shelf life; it shuttered this year because funding sources — not new ideas — had dried up.
Fortunately, a new entity, AS220's 95 Empire, has arisen on the same site to ensure that Perishable's legacy of developing and producing new and experimental work, providing wide-ranging education in theatre arts, and offering affordable rehearsal, teaching, and performance space to new and emerging artists and groups will endure.
Those close to the situation say Perishable's devotion to the new and untried was critical. "It's vital in an arts community to have experimentation, to have labs," says Mauro Hantman, a member of the Perishable-housed group Improv Jones and of Trinity Rep's resident company. "You have to have the new work churning from below, or the stuff at the top becomes deadly. The new stuff is the life of the community."
Founded in 1983, Perishable grew during the flush 1990s — when schools funded visiting artists and national foundations supported new work — into a nine-member performing company, black-box theatre, and popular school for theatre arts, all housed in the AS220-owned space at 95 Empire Street.
It eventually offered affordable rental rates to fledgling performance groups like Improv Jones, Live Bait, Blood from a Turnip, and the Elemental Theatre Collective, plus small dance companies and performers from Providence's burgeoning burlesque scene, creating in the process a late-night performance series and a nexus of artistic possibility.
By the late 2000s the theatre was focused on developing new work by emerging artists, with Perishable-incubated works and artists gaining increasing national and international recognition. Providence audiences relied on Perishable for premieres like Drum of the Waves of Horikawa, a punk rock take on an 18th-century Kabuki samurai revenge tale, accompanied by a drumbeat so amplified as to take over one's heartbeat (earplugs were provided); or Amy Lynn Budd's neo-burlesque, dance/puppetry/B-movie mash-up, The Thing That Ate My Brain . . . Almost, detailing her adventures in brain surgery; or Self Defense, or Death of Some Salesmen, Carson Kreitzer's unpacking of the gender and class assumptions skewing the media's portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wournos.
But a small theatre devoted to new work, which can't depend on the occasional classic to boost revenue, must have outside investment. By this fall a long, slow trajectory of early-decade changes to federal education policies eliminating school funding for visiting artists, the continued fallout of the 2008 crash, and changes in staff leadership led the board to conclude that while the organization's mission was still vital, its business model was no longer sustainable.
At this point Perishable's board and the smaller groups renting its space approached AS220 artistic and managing directors Bert Crenca and Aaron Peterman, and the conclusion was unanimous: Providence needed what Perishable had provided, and AS220, long committed to incubating experimental work, had the history and experience to take up the banner; last week it announced a search for a full-time manager and part-time education coordinator for 95 Empire.
Alex Platt, artistic director for Perishable-housed Elemental Theatre Collective, is heartened. "Institutional support is so important for developing new work," he says. "AS220 knows how to support this, and can help us learn how to support ourselves."