Q & A with Jason Cabral

Jascon Cabral

You are the executive director of The Gamm Theatre. When, where and how did Gamm begin? 

The Gamm was founded in 1984 as Alias Stage by a small group of actors from the graduating class of Trinity Rep Conservatory. These young artists performed as a collective in abandoned mill buildings in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood for almost a decade. In 1994, backed by a newly formed board of directors, the theater moved to a garage space in the Jewelry District where its reputation for quality acting in challenging and sometimes controversial plays grew. In 1998, the theater was renamed The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, now known as The Gamm, in honor of the late actress and arts supporter. In 2003, under increased financial pressure and with fewer than 100 loyal season subscribers, the theater made its boldest move yet to a renovated annex of the historic Pawtucket National Guard Armory. With Tony Estrella as its new artistic director and as a newly minted member of Actors’ Equity Association, the theater performed for 14 seasons in Pawtucket and grew exponentially in audience size and regional renown. Season 34 (2018-2019) marked The Gamm’s first season in its new home at 1245 Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick. With more seats, a larger stage and greater comfort for our actors and audience, this newly renovated venue in the center of the state is proving an enhanced experience for everyone.

In a recent review of our production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boston Globe noted, “Nearly 20 years ago, this newspaper claimed that the Gamm was a ‘buzz-generating theater’ that offered epic shows in an intimate space. It still is.” Over the years and through many moves, The Gamm has remained constant in its identity and resolve. Where we began is in its essence where we are now. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Caset-of-Whos-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf-L-to-R-Jeanine-Kane-Martha-Tony-Estrella-George-Gunnar-Manchester-Nick-Gabrielle-McCauley-Honey-Photo-by-Cat-Laine.jpg
Cast of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, from left: Jeanine Kane (Martha), Tony Estrella (George), Gunnar Manchester (Nick), Gabrielle McCauley (Honey) – Photo by Cat Laine

Your mission statement reads: “The Gamm Theatre is proud to tell stories that entertain, provoke, and engage seriously with the most important issues of our time. The Gamm further serves the public with educational programming that enriches the cultural and civic life of our community.” Can you please elaborate? 

Now in its 39th season, The Gamm brings world-class theater to audiences in Southern New England, including Rhode Island, Connecticut, Greater Boston, Southern Massachusetts and beyond. Drawing on the talent of local and visiting artists, we present an eclectic season of exciting new works and classics made to feel new — from the naturalistic to the epic. We use our intimate space to engage, provoke and entertain audiences with conversation-starting productions that often feel ripped from the headlines or are timeless in their themes and relevance. Humanities forums and post-show talkbacks further enhance engagement with our actors and between audience members. Our robust education programming includes in-school and out-of-school residencies for K-12 students in primarily low-income school districts using a literacy through the arts teaching model. Last year, our education department served over 4,300 students. From our theater, we also offer acting classes for adults, summer camps for elementary through high school age participants, and a robust student matinee program that invites students to deep dive into our work on stage.

And this also from the Gamm website really caught our attention: “Through a range of robust education and community programs, The Gamm promotes life-long literacy for thousands of school students grades K-12, as well as underserved audience members each year. Humanities forums and post-show talkbacks further enhance the intellectual and cultural life of the community.” Again, can you expand? 

The Gamm has been a leader in arts education programming in Rhode Island for over 18 years. In that time, the theater’s signature program, Promotion Literacy and Arts for Youth (PLAY), has engaged over 50,000 students in grades K-12. PLAY represents the theater’s effort to provide arts-rich learning experiences to students both in school and out of school. Through PLAY, any Title I designated school can participate in Gamm education programming free of charge, which is critical as school districts continue to slash and eliminate arts programs to meet tight budgets. Without grant-funded programming from organizations like The Gamm, students would have little to no engagement with the arts.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) revealed that less than 20% of public school students in the state’s urban core districts were meeting grade-level expectations in ELA/Literacy. These results were among the worst in the region. The long-term impact of illiteracy on these communities could be devastating. The Gamm tackles the literacy challenge with a creative and energized approach. Bringing a story to life through theater sparks enthusiasm and deeper understanding of the text and each other. It helps readers by highlighting the message and ideas that might otherwise be missed, while requiring conversation and interaction with teachers and peers.

On a separate track, we offer a wide array of educational and outreach opportunities for learners of all ages. The Gamm’s humanities-based programming includes “Shared Sunday” post-performance talkbacks throughout the theater season. This series of humanities discussions has been part of The Gamm’s engagement activities since 2006, and has regularly featured actors, directors, designers, and guest scholars in a public forum-style arrangement. Audiences come to The Gamm to be challenged and engaged; these forums are their chance to challenge and engage in return.

Diversity is a key part of The Gamm’s mission. Why is that important in the theater world – and the broader world in general? 

At The Gamm, we aim to ensure that diversity remains at the heart of everything we do. We are actively working to foster a sense of belonging for all, be it patrons, employees, artists, or the community at large. I’ve always been moved by Harry Belafonte’s words, “Artists have a valuable function in any society since it is the artist who reveals the society to itself.” Theater, by this virtue, prompts us to confront the realities of our community. The work on our stages should help spark civic discourse and debate to find common ground amid our diversity. At The Gamm, we embrace this role wholeheartedly, using the power of storytelling to illuminate the shared human experience and foster connections across divides.

Tell us about some of the many awards that have come Gamm’s way. 

Over the years, The Gamm has been honored with numerous awards, reflecting our commitment to excellence in our work. Among our notable achievements are two Elliot Norton Awards from the Boston Theatre Critics’ Association: one for Outstanding Production by a Small Company for Clifford Odet’s Awake and Sing! and another for Outstanding New Script for Paul Grellong’s Radio Free Emerson, commissioned by The Gamm. Additionally, The Gamm received a special citation from the Elliot Norton Awards in recognition of our 25th anniversary, affirming our status as “a cherished theatrical gem in our region.”

In addition to these accolades, The Gamm has received two New England Theatre Conference awards for outstanding achievement in the American Theatre. Each of these awards serve as a testament to the dedication and talent of our artists and staff, and we are so grateful for recognition and support.

In light of the Hollywood strikes last year, we note that “The Gamm is a proud member of New England Area Theatres, a bargaining unit of Actors’ Equity Association.” What does this mean for players and other production people? 

We have an excellent relationship through our bargaining unit with the union and highly value the contribution of the professional actors and stage managers. They really are the life blood of our work and deserve to be compensated and treated accordingly. Human artistic investment is the best investment we can make. Hopefully, of course, we can avoid the kind of acrimony that roiled the film and TV industry for much of last year.

The Gamm now has a permanent home at 1245 Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick. What does this mean for the theater – and your audiences? 

The transition to our permanent home in Warwick represents a major milestone for The Gamm and our community. With the additional space and upgraded facilities, we have the capacity to expand and professionalize our operations, allowing our talented designers and technicians the freedom to fully realize their creative visions. This flexibility translates into elevated production quality, with the ability to incorporate new elements such as multi-level sets, trap doors, or alternative space configurations that were impossible in our Pawtucket space.

Beyond our productions, our new location situates us at the heart of the state, offering greater accessibility to audiences across Rhode Island. By bringing our productions closer to home for many, we aim to deepen our connection with the community and broaden our reach, fostering a more inclusive and engaged audience base not only in Providence and Pawtucket, but now Warwick and in South County as well.

The move to Warwick ignites a sense of ambition for the future of The Gamm. While pandemic put a pause on our plans, our new home serves as a catalyst for long-term growth and innovation. With a larger footprint and growing resources, we are inspired to pursue initiatives that will shape the trajectory of The Gamm for years to come.

We always ask about background. Where did you grow up? 

I was born and raised in Fall River, Massachusetts, a stone’s throw away from the Ocean State. Growing up, I was deeply influenced by my Portuguese immigrant parents whose journey to the states has been a source of great inspiration to me for many years. Their ability to overcome both social and economic obstacles reveal a spirit that defined my upbringing.

Coming from a working-class family, values of perseverance and ambition were instilled in me from a young age. It humbled me and shaped much of my outlook over the years, helping to cultivate a strong work ethic and a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunities I’ve had in my life and career. 

As a first-generation American, the unwavering support of my parents helped lay the foundation for my success. Their support continues to inspire me in my work today, as I look to make a difference within this gorgeous community close to home.

What were your positions before coming to The Gamm? Start with your own acting. 

My years as an actor during school and post-grad, were both thrilling and challenging. I was fortunate to play roles ranging from Konstantin in The Seagull to Georg in the musical She Loves Me. While I have left that work behind to take on the administrative side of the arts, I hold onto two experiences through those years that I cherish.

The first experience was studying abroad in Russia at the Moscow Art Theatre, an intensive program that broadened my perspective on the possibilities of storytelling on stage. The second was working as a teaching artist, which led me on an international tour across four continents teaching English as a second language through theatrical performance and highlighting the transformative power of theater on young lives. These experiences underscored the importance of communication and storytelling, not only on stage but also in life. The way we use our physical selves to bridge gaps of diversity and understanding can truly be beautiful.

Over 10 years ago, I began my work in arts administration on the development team at The Public Theater in New York City. These were the years of Fun Home and Hamilton, which provided great opportunity for learning and growth. Being surrounded by the truly impressive visionary leaders and collaborators, I quickly built up the skill and knowledge that led me to take on senior positions at Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC and Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.

During the onset of the pandemic, I worked to help Center Theatre Group navigate the challenges facing the theater industry. Deciding it necessary to step away and move back home to Southern New England, I transitioned out of the theater and gained valuable experience working with teams at national non-profit organizations like the ASPCA, NAACP, and Habitat for Humanity International.

This diverse background in theater, both on stage and off, as well as time at these larger advocacy organizations, have uniquely positioned me for this role at The Gamm and where the theater is today. I am continuously inspired by Tony, the staff, and board of directors, and look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together.

And finally, tell us about plans for this season’s productions. 

Our current 39th season has been carefully crafted by Artistic Director Tony Estrella to remind us of unique power and sheer delight of livetheater. We wanted to invigorate audiences to come back and experience the live performance again. Based on our growing ticket sales, we are doing just that.

We are midway through the season now and thrilled by the overwhelming response to our current production of Edward Albee’s American classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In fact, we extended it through February 25th due to popular demand. I may be biased, but this show is not to be missed!

Looking ahead, our audiences will enjoy the transformative magic of loss and love with William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night. And wrapping up the season in May, we’ll commemorate the 20th anniversary of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable. It’s a masterpiece whose relevance in our contemporary landscape is as compelling as ever.

Now, for our upcoming 40th anniversary season, our team is working diligently on finalizing the lineup. With Tony’s expertise and discerning eye, I have no doubt that this milestone season will be nothing short of extraordinary. You’ll have to stay tuned for the announcement!