When Jen Stevens was a student at Rhode Island College, she spent much of her time in the theater department, though not necessarily walking the boards. She started an improv troupe and served on the college theater’s executive board. “I did everything,” she says, “but probably my greatest contribution was as a stage manager.”
If you know theater, or maybe even if you don’t, you know that the stage manager is the brains of the operation. They keep everything running smoothly and, when things aren’t going as planned, they’re the ones to get things back on track. They live for memos and binders; they know who to call when the going gets tough and when the tough have insurmountable stage fright or a sprained ankle.
It’s not surprising that Jen’s background is in stage management; she spends her days coordinating logistics for two nonprofits, Options Magazine – the free LGBTQ monthly publication – where she acts as editor, and Rhode Island Pride, for which she fills the role of office manager. But it’s her passion project, the Sweet Little Variety Show, a monthly variety showcase downtown at Aurora, where some of these long-held skills really shine.
Celebrating its sixth year of production this January, Jen co-produces the variety show with her longtime friend Nicole Maynard and Nicole’s wife, Meg Sullivan (also a fixture in the Providence theater community, Meg is the Executive Artistic Director of the Manton Avenue Project). That means curating a monthly full-length variety show featuring a diverse array of performers, coordinating costs and booking the space. Though now performed at Aurora, the show has cycled through multiple venues in its lifespan, such as the Speakeasy at Local 121 and the now-defunct Roots Café.
“When I was the event coordinator for the Speakeasy at Local 121, I was booking all of the entertainment, and I kept saying to my friends that it would be great to produce a variety show,” she says. “We knew so many people with talents, but who weren’t going to book a show on their own and promote it.”
Jen correctly surmised that Providence, considered the “Creative Capital,” was home to many musicians, magicians, jugglers, rappers, singers, dancers, performance artists and others – all of whom had day jobs but required a venue to bring their passion projects to life at night. That’s where the Sweet Little Variety Show came in.
Along with her co-producers, Jen is very much committed to fostering community in other respects; the group has held benefits for Rhode Island Pride, the Manton Avenue Project and other charities, each with the featured acts of the evening forgoing their pay in order to donate the $5 cover charge to the beneficiary organization. At one such benefit held on behalf of Rhode Island Pride in June, I saw a delightful mix of burlesque dancers, stand-up comics and a rendition of Biz Markee’s “Just A Friend” performed by the Moist Towelettes, one of the two house bands for the variety show, comprised of Nicole and cohort Beth Husted.
“We really appreciate that we can give people an opportunity to hone their craft,” Jen says of the many acts – particularly the stand-up comics – who have been afforded the chance to grow through their years performing at the show. “People who wouldn’t be able to get a gig otherwise will come through and they’ll keep coming back.”
Artists must wait three months before they come back to be featured on stage, so the offerings at each show are different from month to month, but Jen says they’ve been fortunate to see familiar faces return to the stage time and again.
Despite the welcoming tenor of the show, Jen says, it’s still a paid gig, which certainly carries meaning with the artists. She wants them to be able to pay for parking or to belly up to the bar after performing and afford a drink. “We’ve had people say ‘no, I can’t take your money,’” she says. “But it’s important that we pay the artists. I think we have a wonderful pool of talented people here in the community, but I think it’s difficult for them,” Jen explains. “A lot of venues pop up and go away. And so [the local art scene] is ever evolving, but I think that is also why the variety show is so important. Anyone can land in the variety show, really, if they’re down with our mission and have something to offer.”
The Sweet Little Variety Show
Aurora, 276 Westminster Street
November 12 at 8pm
Featuring Buugeng Flowart by Chad Anctil, comic Elena Jawitz, poetry by Mittz, comic Reece Cotton and a musical performance by Sarah Rich & Invincible We