2023 in Review: For art, music and theater fans, there was something magical about 2023 in Southern Rhode Island | Arts and life

2023 brought a steady stream of competitive entertainment, art exhibitions, authors publishing new work and festivals, fairs and bazaars in the South District.

“Happy Days Are Here Again” seems like a song that could have been played over and over all year without referencing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential campaign.

Theater By The Sea, United Theatre, The Contemporary Theatre, area high schools with their theater productions, Hera Gallery, South County Art Association, Pump House Music Works, Courthouse Center for the Arts, and Knickerbocker Music—to name a few venues—offered strong events for locals, tourists and their many other patrons over the past year.

Just as importantly, they also used this year to focus on some special efforts to improve their offerings and programming.

“While The United drew 55,000 people to downtown Westerly in 2023 for movies, concerts and author talks, it was a new educational series, the United Table, that stood out as a highlight,” said United spokesman Tim Cotter.

The United States partnered with the Wakefield-based nonprofit, Eating With the Ecosystem, for two programs that gave an inside look at the seafood industry, he said.

“First was an explanation and demonstration of Ikejime, a Japanese method of cooking fish that produces better tasting and healthier meat. Questions raised by the audience informed the second event, “From Reel to Food: A Conversation About the Seafood Industry,” he added.

The latter covered topics such as fisheries management, fish processing and the sale and availability of our favorite and tastiest natural resource.

“The audience’s appetite for this kind of discussion really surprised us as both events were sold out,” he said. “People want to know exactly what’s on their plate and how it got there.”

United Table will continue into the New Year with Soupy Fest, a celebration of all things soupy – the iconic cured sausage brought here by immigrants from Calabria, Italy. Cabbage, oyster and beer programs are also available.

At the other end of the South District, the Shady Lea Mill artist colony and sales center in North Kingstown revived its focus in 2023 on its open studio events.

At least twice a year, artists open their doors and patrons watch them work. In the ateliers, they can buy original ceramics, glass, painting, weaving and other works.

“Over the past year, the sun has returned to Shady Lea Mill,” said owner Lynn Crim, referring to the uptick in business and visitors following the long recovery since the end of the pandemic.

Old barn Theater By The Sea celebrated its 90th birthday this year on Cards Pond Road in Matunuck with a series of four shows as timeless in entertainment as the executive producer’s attitude.

Karen Kessler, a spokeswoman for the theater, said last week that it was bucking a national trend of declining season ticket sales.

“Subscriptions are up a further 9% for the 2024 summer season,” she said, adding: “We feel so fortunate that our historic waterfront theater continues to buck this trend.”

It’s a playhouse that people flock to every year for both the shows and the loyalty to a unique South County institution.

“McDonald’s sells hamburgers because they know it works. I do musicals because that’s what I do,” said Bill “Timeless” Hanney, TBTS’ owner and producer, whose productions still resonate with this South County entertainment venue long after their Broadway and national tour ends.

Haney said this fall in an interview that he was signing contracts and finalizing details for the 2024 show list.

“A Chorus Line” will begin the 2024 season, followed by “Tootsie,” “The Sound of Music” and “42nd Street: The Musical,” he said.

In the center of Wakefield, the Contemporary Theater Company continued to offer a variety of outdoor and courtyard performances.

It was a lot of ado about something in October. However, the title of the CTC show was Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare.

That brought back Tammy Brown, CTC’s artistic director. Her breakout performance in 2019 as Hamlet led to a similarly entertaining performance.

CTC also continued many of its mission-critical offerings, including its annual Ocean State Black and Funny Improv Festival in August for the third time.

As always, the theater opened itself to new and original plays. Being Armenian means never saying goodbye.

This and other anecdotes filled CTC playwright and performer Susie Chakmakian’s April talk about Armenia’s heritage. It is a country just to the south of the great mountain range of the Caucasus, and in front of the north-western extremity of Asia.

“We never get to leave parties when we say we will because we spend so much time saying goodbye to everyone,” she said.

“The Armenian way of doing things has influenced me in my life, like when I was a tired six-year-old who just wanted to go home after a long night at a family event, but it took my parents forever to say goodbye,” she said.

In the world of writing, Kim Henson channeled Tillie Olsen’s thoughts in I Stand Here Ironing about the decades-long struggle women have waged to juggle careers and motherhood.

Gene McKee, a retired longtime district doctor turned author, released another new book in 2023 called Caddy Days at Point Judith Country Club. It is a short read (104 pages) and reflects a long-gone part of his life as a Qadi.

Point Judith Country Club in the mid-1940s is where Gene McKee, then 12, sought out local friends, began caddying and learned lessons about life both on and off the course.

The criterion for good professors is not so much that their names are remembered, but more about their inspiration as an eternal candle that constantly flickers in the minds of students.

Dr. Nancy Potter was that kind of professor, students and colleagues say.

She died on August 24 at the age of 97 at her home in South County.

She was also an accomplished short story writer for many magazines. In addition, the University of Illinois Press published Legacies (1987), a collection of short stories, and her other work includes the earlier We’ve Seen the Best of Our Times (1968), published by Knopf.

The South County Arts Association also draws on personal work and effort in the many handmade crafts that its artisans and students create. She continued this work through several programs.

The annual open juried photography has been a staple of the SCAA exhibition schedule for over 30 years. It returned in the spring to showcase the photography community in all its traditional and experimental forms.

Until April 15, the exhibition featured over 60 unique photographic/lens-based works.

Another long-standing exhibition is back on the schedule for the Wickford Art Association. It held its 60th Wickford Art Festival in Wilson Park on July 8 and 9, bringing together high caliber artists with passionate art fans.

And in Peace Dale, hundreds of loyal customers of the Sons of Liberty whiskey distiller arrived and returned to its 1425 Kingstown Road tasting room when it reopened this year after being closed due to COVID.

“We feel so good and we have so many regulars that we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Brian Rickard, marketing director, as he handed out free tastes of honey-flavored whiskey and chocolate vodka.

“I had one customer who said, ‘I’m home, it’s good to be back home,'” he said at the May 27 grand opening of the tasting room over Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s been a year to remember,” said Ricard and the many others whose programs, organizations and businesses thrived once again this past year.

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