Grant funds help further Blackstone River Theatre mission

Grant funds help further Blackstone River Theatre mission

Blackstone River Theatre took over the historic 1928 building located at 549 Broad St., in Cumberland, in 1996. The building is the site of the forner Unity Masonic Lodge. Ongoing renovation efforts received a boost with a $47,000 grant from The Champlin Foundation this past November.

CUMBERLAND – Inside an otherwise beautifully refurbished building, the upper level of the Blackstone River Theatre stands as a dilapidated reminder of what used to be. With aged graffiti adorning the walls, no heat, and no electricity, the space gives off the vibe of an abandoned building, rather than a community theater.

Not for long, though.

The theater, located at 549 Broad St., received a $47,000 grant from The Champlin Foundation in November to turn two upstairs rooms into new classrooms, renovate the stairs, and create an upper lobby area. Additional work will include all-new electric, two ductless dual HVAC units, floor refinishing, priming and painting, and installing new lighting fixtures and fire safety devices.

“It’s going to become an even more active hub than it already has become over the years,” said Russell Gusetti, executive director of the theater. “I’m really excited to get the new classrooms in there and to continue to build what we do.”

Gusetti said he hopes the finished product will look as close to the other floors as possible and said he is eager to transform it into a functioning, livable space.

The changes allow the theater to increase its capacity and offer more classes. Among its current class offerings are Irish step dancing, fiddle, guitar, banjo, dulcimer, stone carving and more. The theater also presents a variety of ethnic and world music performances in its downstairs concert hall.

The new upstairs rooms will primarily be used for instrument lessons, and will enable Gusetti to more strategically spread out existing classes. Gusetti elaborated that the additional space can prevent the music of a dance class from competing against a nearby room full of fiddles.

The area will be cleared out by the end of January, and Gusetti said he wants to have contractors working on the space by mid-February. He plans to have the floor ready by mid-April.

“The main thing for me is that these grants, when we get them – this is our third now from Champlin – allow us to do improvements to the building to expand our programming, without having to take the money out of what comes in at the door,” he said.

The renovations come as the theater has seen years of increased interest. Participation has grown, and Gusetti said the theater needed space to match that. Plans to fix up the top floor have been in the works for a long time.

“It literally has been just storage space for 20 years. It’s like going through somebody’s attic to get things out of there,” said Gusetti.

Without grant money, Gusetti said, the theater would never be able to make this many improvements to the 1928 building. He credits The Champlin Foundation with making it possible for the theater to grow as a facility over the years.

Blackstone River Theatre previously received a $97,000 grant from the foundation in November of 2015 to repair and renovate all existing windows in the building. The money was used by the theater as a matching grant for the first round of the State Cultural Facilities Grant Program, which used state money and was administered through the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.

The town of Cumberland, as owner of the building, formerly a Masonic temple, also received a Champlin Foundation grant in 2013 for $40,000 to redo the parking lot next to the theater and address drainage issues that had caused extensive damage and icy conditions.

“The Champlin Foundation is really amazing because you get an organization that you feel truly believes in what you’re doing,” Gusetti said. “When you get some of these repeated grants approved by them, it just feels good.”

According to Gusetti, the improvements will help the Blackstone River Theatre further achieve its mission of providing members of the community with a venue to learn about something they’ve either always wanted to learn, or something they never even knew existed.

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The upper level rooms destined for renovation, which were used for years for storage, will be cleared by Blackstone River Theatre volunteers before work begins. The horsehair plaster walls will be scraped, primed and painted, and new electrical systems will be installed, along with lighting fixtures.