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Cast members act out a dance scene during a dress rehearsal for the Theatre by the Sea's production of "Mamma Mia!" on Aug. 17.

Looking back at 2021 in the arts and entertainment circles around South County, venue operators and hosts of arts displays and performances made a strong effort to re-establish themselves as they attempted to put COVID in the rear view mirror.

The effort remained strong, especially after Gov. Dan McKee lifted most remaining restrictions as the Memorial Day weekend approached and summer beckoned. However, that short-lived flirt with a return to pre-pandemic normal waned as a resurgence in the virus returned.

“It’s crazy, just crazy what’s happening,” said Dan Collins, owner of Pump House Music Works who welcomed live music outdoors in April and that continued through the summer under a new tent.

By December, though, he was requiring both masks and proof of vaccines for performers and patrons alike.

Down the Kingstown Road and around the corner to Main Street where the Contemporary Theater is located, CTC Artistic Director Tammy Brown summed up the highs and lows of an attempt at a return to normal.

“I think that this year has had a lot of competing impulses at play, with competing dreams and desires for what we wanted and expected,” she said.

“We tried to come out with as ambitious and as full as season as we could. It was a lot harder than any of us expected,” Brown explained, noting that CTC focused on having outdoor performances that were also subject to the variances of the weather.

“Every single day we’re all on out phones looking at the weather and what it will be,” she said with a hearty laugh. Being outdoors – an environment that dampens the spread of COVID and its variants – became the focus for the chief way to bring back the CTC audience to its performances.

CTC had hoped the return to inside performances would have been without a COVID-related problem, but a spike in virus cases Is driving up among people their fears of catching it. “We had hoped to go inside in 2022 and now that’s thrown into flux again,” Brown added.

The Contemporary Theater wasn’t the only local theater that faced issues with productions.  Theater By the Sea had to scale down its entire production season for the summer of 2021 following lights out for the entire 2020 season.

“This year we survived it all. We’re still here and it has built on us coming back next year stronger than ever and with a full schedule of what people expect,” he told The Independent in September.

The theater’s season ended with a nearly sold-out house for the award-winning “Mamma Mia!” and in overtime through an unscheduled additional performance of the American jukebox musical romantic comedy.

Social distancing requirements still in place in January made planning for performances difficult so theater staff pivoted to night club style acts.

Theater staff Tom Senter, Thom Warren and Karen Gail Kessler helped to create the “2021 Summer Concert Series” of comedy, show tunes and Broadway musicals. The highlight will be the ever-popular Abba production “Mamma Mia” in August.

 

The Music Side

On the music side, schools, venue operators, performers and audience members faced similar situations with “going on with the show,” but in a somewhat curtailed manner.

Music-makers – the dreamers of dreams – at area high schools didn’t let COVID-19 become a nightmare taking away their passions and desires when state education officials offered no help to salvage their programs.

An intrepid group of administrators, teachers and students instead mirrored British poet Arthur W.E. O’Shaughnessy;s words about these dreamers wandering by lone sea breakers, yet being the movers and the shakers from his poem “We Are the Music-Makers.”  

“What I did not plan for was for RIDE (Rhode Island Department of Education) to write in their guidance that schools should consider suspending band and chorus for the year,” said a stunned Toni-Annette Silveira, North Kingstown High School Fine Arts department head.

For the last several months, melodies have rung through area schools, though somewhat muted by masks, off-schedule practices along with bands and choruses having fewer people and lots of social distancing.

An April Saturday chill in the air didn’t deter over 70 people who created a warm — even a hot — welcome to the Pump House’s first outdoor concert for the 2021 season.

The desire for live music shoved aside any concerns about the cold – and the coronavirus – as music drifted around the people gathered on the lawn of Pump House Music Works.

Under an 80-foot long outdoor white tent, they sat  in chairs or around picnic tables — and either alone or in groups — to hear bands take to the stage. It didn’t matter whether they knew or followed any of the bands.

As restrictions and COVID 19 cases dropped in tandem as the summer months approached, even more venue operators and audience members became more adventuresome.

Beaches started to fill up again as did rental homes with vacationers and coming right along with a return to pre-COVID normalcy was music ringing out at restaurants, clubs and other venues around South County.

“We’ve been getting upwards of 500 to 600 people for our music shows and concerts outdoors,” said Dylan Thompson, manager of the Rathskeller in Charlestown, told The Independent in July.

The popular and always-crowded beach bar, Ocean Mist on Matunuck Beach Road along the Atlantic Ocean, cranked out the sounds of bands again starting with The Senders. The return complemented a schedule that ran through the summer and into the rest of the year, said Kevin Finnegan, club owner.

Mariann Almonte at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston, while discovering more competition in the afterlife of the pandemic restrictions, is seeing her venue packed, too.

“I think we are on the way to getting back on our feet again,” she told The Independent.

In 2020 live music was a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. It collapsed and ruined the plans for many concert-goers who spend months and money bouncing from venue to venue to hear their favorite artists.

What a difference a year makes. Summer 2021 shaped up early to offer previously scheduled shows, returns of old favorites and calendars, like those at the Pump House in Peace Dale, Ocean Mist in Matunuck and Oak Hill Tavern in North Kingstown.

Letting their voices ring out in a chorus of sound and melody was a freedom this year felt by the North Kingstown Community Chorus as it resumed its public singing program for the holidays.

Canceled last year due to COVID-19 restrictions and precautions, this 55-member adult and 22-member youth chorus resumed its annual in-person choral event in December.

However, as the year closed out, new variants of the coronavirus have brought back mask-wearing, proof of vaccinations and fewer people going to venues, owners reported.

 

Art Galleries

After as dark and challenging of a year of 2020 – and with many of those issues still lingering into 2021– many people looked for an escape or an outlet to creatively express themselves and the South County Art Association was there to help.

It launched a series of online virtual classes starting in January a wide variety of artistic mediums. Classes taught included pottery – in which art kits are included – as well as painting and drawing, mixed media, printmaking –  which also includes art kits – and photography.

“This year we experienced many highs and lows. While our winter classes were all virtual, we opened our gallery windows (closed for over 50 years) in order to offer spring classes in our gallery,” said Executive Director Kathleen Carland.

Art enthusiasts — or perhaps just supportive patrons — looking to get a good “steal” on a deal checked the South County Art Association’s display for its Great Art Heist fundraiser.

This annual benefit for the association gave art lovers a chance to select favorite pieces in this specific collection for the event. Whether mixed media, a painting, ceramic design, photography or pottery, they also get an opportunity to have some fun.

While 2020 put a strain on all artists and their ability to publicly display their work, it also robbed many art students of their ability to work alongside each other, and the University of Rhode Island 2021 Senior Seminar students was no exception.

Working independently and remotely in their homes and studios, from South County to Connecticut to as far away as China, 16 seniors from the URI Department of Art and Art History were tasked with creating that sense of communal artistry while attending virtual classes.

In 2021 they saw their hard work pay off at the Hera Gallery in “Stellar Nursery,” which ran through May 8, both in gallery and online.

Beauty, originality and business come together in July for the Wickford Art Festival where there was something for everyone.

This premier summer event, canceled in 2020, returned this year in tapestries of colors from ruby red to squirrel grey and everything in between. This outdoor showcase of arts and crafts, paintings and photography, started in 1962, was relocated in a break of tradition from the center village’s tight streets to the spacious Wilson Park.

“This is a great event for our community here in North Kingstown and a great art festival for the public at large. It’s a chance for everyone to appreciate the talent out there and see if a piece speaks to them,” said Diane Heilig, 55, first-time exhibitor. She is also a member of the Wickford Art Association, the festival’s sponsor.

 

Authors and their Work

Mystery writer Claremary Sweeney of South Kingstown once more entertained local readers with a fresh installment of a murder mystery, “Last Castle in the Sand,” that takes in so many well-known places and sites around South County.

 It is the fifth in her South County murder and detective series.

Narragansett author Jane McCarthy’s new self-published book,  “The Faces of War,” used historical fiction to bring readers inside the hearts, minds and lives of two young men - American John Conway and German Karl Baum - on opposite sides in World War II.

There’s love, drama, death, conflict and decisions to be made. There’s also perspective - the viewpoints of Baum and Conway whose experiences create a glimpse of the turmoil and struggles those in real-life situations faced by soldiers, families and others on both sides.

“The relationship of the American and the German is key to the book and how they come across to each other and the devastating effect of war,” said McCarthy, a Narragansett resident, in an interview with The Independent. The book was published last week.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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