The Bards of Wakefield

The Contemporary Theater in South Kingstown celebrates 14 years at the Masquerade Gala

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In its own right, the Masquerade Gala is a rapturous event. The Gala takes place at The Towers in Narragansett, one of the most iconic settings in South County. Tables are laden with poker chips, and guests can try their hand at blackjack. Whether you strap on an elaborate Carnivale mask or some cardboard number from CVS, you will fit right in. For 10 years, The Contemporary Theater has drawn supporters to its dance floor. The Masquerade is an important fundraiser, and it’s one heck of a party.

But it’s also a chance to reflect on everything The Contemporary Theater has accomplished in the past 14 years. The company started as a one-off summer project in 2005, when Christopher J. Simpson and some friends decided to mount Neil Simon’s comedy Rumors. It wasn’t yet called The Contemporary Theater Company, and they mounted the show in a West Kingston multipurpose building that would eventually become the Courthouse Center for the Arts.

“They were like, ‘You know what would be fun to do this summer? We should put on a show!’” recalls Maggie Cady, the theater’s general manager. The company migrated around South County, performing at URI, at a local high school, at a library and cafe, until finally renting its current space – the former Hera Gallery – in 2012. “We renovated the whole thing, re-did it all,” says Maggie. “It’s been a wonderful space these past few years.”

“There were some great businesses in town, but it was definitely a sleepy, daytime kind of town,” says Christopher, who grew up in Wakefield. He credits several young entrepreneurs with revitalizing the downtown area in the late 1990s. “They put a lot of energy into it. The mindset shifted. Now it’s, ‘Part of my life is lived on Main Street.’”

The Contemporary Theater is a busy place. They proudly produce more stage plays than any other venue in the state. The lineup can be edgy, such as Carol Churchill’s unsettling The Skriker, which played through September.

Meanwhile, the theater hosts an astonishing range of performing arts events:
The Ocean State Improv Festival takes place here, as well as the impossibly popular Wakefield Idol singing contest. In the summer, the theater hosts a free Shakespeare series in its renovated garden area. Standing on the river’s edge, the property offers easy access to RiverFire and the pedestrian trestle bridge.

In recent years, Chris has noticed people passing by – people he knows live in North Kingstown and are escorting friends from elsewhere. “They say, ‘This is our theater,’” says Chris. “I’m like, ‘You’ve never been here! I didn’t think you knew we existed!’ But even if you don’t go, [art spaces] change your relationship and your sense of place. It makes you feel like you’re part of a community, which is something I think we’re all looking for in 2019.”

The Masquerade Gala takes place November 1 in Narragansett.