Up-and-Coming Pawtucket Arts Space & PVD Bookseller Make Summer Plans

Focal and Symposium Books will team up for music and more

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Brianna Paon is a connector. After DJing and booking shows for several years in the greater Boston area (electronic/experimental music shows in venues and alternative spaces), she began to dream about a platform that could host a wide variety of community arts and music projects. Together with partner Matthew O’Brien, a fixture in the Providence punk music scene playing drums in Passionplay, the industrious couple founded Focal. “We’ve been looking for something like this,” says Paon. And now, in the heart of Pawtucket, that safe and inclusive multi-purpose arts space exists, joining Rhode Island’s robust underground scene. “It’s a collective dream we can share with the community.”

Housed in a 2,000-square-foot space in the JamStage building at 25 Esten Avenue, the studio space is flexible, allowing the couple to transform the interior to host art exhibitions, markets, band rehearsals, and creative workshops. Focal is building toward a recording studio to accompany the shop room, the pet project of O’Brien, who works at Heritage Restoration in Providence as a carpenter while participating heavily in Providence’s extreme music scene. O’Brien’s skills will come in handy, as they are experimenting with modular walls and other installations to facilitate different events, including live music shows. 

The soft open last August allowed Paon and O’Brien to test different ideas and find their niche in the arts scene. The couple lives a few blocks away from the Focal space, and are deeply invested in serving their community. While Focal was recently awarded its LLC designation, the two aren’t looking to turn a large profit; rather they aspire to provide a space for events. The goal is for Focal to be a space where creatives can “thrive, push boundaries, and rediscover themselves.” 

Focal recently began an exciting collaboration with Symposium Books, the beloved independent bookstore in downtown Providence. Symposium’s owner, Scott McCullough, is a longtime fan of electronic music, one of Paon’s passions, so working with Focal was a natural fit. The team is offering virtual streaming music events now, and hope to branch out into outdoor events and one-day festivals by the beginning of the summer. Up next: a boutique space to sell a curated collection of electronic records. 

As more and more Rhode Islanders get vaccinated, the prospect of in-person events hosted by Focal draws closer. Paon is dreaming big, thinking of live music shows, fundraisers, and DIY workshops about anything from basic auto repairs to screen printing. “We really are limitless here,” she says. Here’s looking forward to seeing what’s next for this creative team. 

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