SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Plywood and lumber stacked outside the Contemporary Theater on Main Street in Wakefield went to quick use. The frame of an expanded front lobby started to take shape with it.
In the compound of the theater’s buildings, by a bridge over the nearby Saugatucket River, a raised patio adjoins a lower one. Audiences gather there to see outside many performances such as Shakespeare on the Saugatucket and the recent play, “The Skriker.”
A pergola shade structure with an open-lattice roof supported by columns and posts rims part of the outdoor stage. A walkway, under the pergola, takes either guests visiting the grounds or actors to the patios for rehearsals, meetings, class sessions or afternoon and evening performances.
These are all part of a vision of Ivy League graduate and South Kingstown native Christopher Simpson who turned away from the lights on Broadway to the pole lights on Wakefield’s Main Street. Instead he wanted to stage in his hometown the grand performance of building a community theater company from scratch for the many local people looking for a place to express themselves.
In the more than 14 years since he started CTC as just a traveling troupe of performers — sometimes finding only temporary stages that cast members could rent — he has nurtured the enterprise and himself into a fixture for theater, artistic creativity and community contribution in South County.
This growth has led to renovations to CTC’s nearly 2,000-square-foot 1920s main stage building, a 2,500-square-foot rehearsal building built in 1982 and development of a patioed compound area where the community and theater intermingle as one.
“For the first time in our history, we are now expanding because we absolutely need more space,” said Simpson, 33, whose many duties, beyond daily management, include artistic director, carpenter, wood-stacker, guiding inspiration and idea man.
He rattles off thoughts and ideas like a general plotting his next move to always show the presence of the army. A laugh creeps into his sentences as this improvisational actor hears something funny in these meanderings. But, his mind tightens when spitting out facts, figures and details when discussing his pride and joy – CTC.
He’s the guy. He’s like the parent who knows everything the first child ever did.
He said he once worried whether enough people would come to fill the seats. “Now it’s to do (the performance) to satisfy the need and draw for it,” explained Simpson who majored in comparative literature, but all the while was active at Princeton in many drama programs.
Demand for performances today exceeds the limited space in the 125-person capacity theater located at 327 Main St., he said.
The maturing and signs of growth at CTC are obvious for him, but also to his 11-member board of directors and the many cast members who return for roles in different performances or shows offered throughout the year, special holidays and seasonal times, he said.
And it’s becoming clear to those buying tickets as well. For instance, he said, too many people are now cramming into the theater’s small lobby and its expansion is underway now to give more space for concessions and ticketing.
In addition, in 2013-2014, a few years after relocating to the center of Wakefield, performances sold out two or three times, he said. Last year, with a marginal increase in events and performances, CTC had about 50 sell-out shows, he noted.
Another sign of increasing popularity is the crowds who attend Wakefield Idol each spring.
It is South Kingstown’s own — and kinder — version of American Idol. The show brings out home-grown as well as want-to-be-discovered singers and performers in karaoke-style, complete with judges who give advice, dole out disappointment and award opportunity to those competing.
This past season began in January with 55 contestants vying for the top spot and competing in several elimination rounds.
“In 2013 with a run of six nights we sold out once. In 2019 with a run of 12 nights we sold out every night,” he said.
His father, Terry Simpson, an actor, lawyer and president of the CTC Board of Directors, pointed to variety and quality as the draw for returning audiences as well as enticing others to see a show or two to test their desire for more.
“We’re bringing people out and we’re selling out because the music is good, with mostly Rhode Island, some Connecticut and Massachusetts talent competing in Wakefield Idol,” he said.
Ashley Macamaux, a teacher, performer and associate artistic director at CTC, said the varying kinds of shows are attractive to different audiences. “Wakefield Idol is very different than ‘Whodunit? An Improvised Murder Mystery’ show and they have very different audiences,” Macamaux said.
Chris Simpson also pointed to his desire to connect the theater to the community and to the actors and actresses who perform there.
“We offer classes for those wanting to learn acting, we have special shows for different causes, such as people coping with Alzheimer’s disease, and we want this to be a community experience that people feel part of belonging to,” he said.
“The other thing that I think is our hidden asset is that there’s no other company like ours…People get involved, feel rewarded, and stay invested over the years.”
Macamaux, a South Kingstown native who joined the theater while in high school, jumped in, saying, “We’ve had lots of young, young kids come in and their parents said, ‘They’re going to be an actor.’ I’m like, that’s awesome.”
“I (also) care about them feeling happy, safe and part of a community from a young age so that they stay and want to continue to grow the community or that they want to go to another place where they can be in charge and make something grow like what we have here,” Macamaux said.
This mission of teaching, offering community connections and having local theater with Rhode Island talent comes with a cost.
Chris Simpson said that nearly 70 percent of the theater’s operating budget is covered by ticket sales, while 30 percent is from donations.
Major improvements, such building the patios, buying the buildings in which it operates and expanding the lobby, are paid from funds in its capital budget, he said.
For capital improvements, the theater has received three major one-time contributions of $75,000 each during the last few years and has a pool of about 12 major donors who contribute between $5,000 to $25,000 as needed, Simpson said.
Many smaller donations range from $25 to $1,000 each and are significant to helping support the operating budget, he added.
Simpson said he would like to expand the large major donors list to about 30 individuals whose contributions can help with on-going development costs for the theater compound and buildings.
“We are fortunate to have a community of grassroots supporters and that our operation is relatively self-funding,” he said. “People want to feel a connection to a larger group of people and a larger cause and I think this theater is an organization that gives them that.”