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Trender: Perishable Theatre’s Vanessa Gilbert

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Who are the Rhode Islanders leading in arts, fashion, food, and style? They're Trenders, and GoLocalProv offers glimpses of the people you most want to know on the scene. Today, Perishable Theatre's artistic director Vanessa GIlbert. On sabbatical this season, Gilbert is focusing on creative projects, including directing Sarah Ruhl's The Vibrator Play at 2nd Story Theatre in Warren, which opens April 29.

Homegrown factor: "Born between Peace and Plenty" in Providence (St. Joseph's Hospital), attended Brown/Fox Point Day Care (first graduating class with celebrity chef Wiley Dufresne) Fox Point Elementary School (now Vartan Gregorian,) E.W. Flynn Model Elementary School, Nathan Bishop Middle School, & Classical High School. Lives in Providence. 

Age: 40

1. Where did you get your start in your field?

A local legend, Bunny Bronson, was running a drama program out of the Fox Point Library and she handpicked me and a few of my friends to anchor a kids' television show called All-A-Maze that was produced by WPRI.  This was the late 1970s and Zoom from Massachusetts was a bit of a model for this show.  I remember our taping sessions on Thursday nights in the studio; if we weren't running on time, we would have to stop for the 11pm news broadcast which happened next door. I had made up my mind at age 4 that I was going to be an actor after seeing Rose Weaver in a Trinity Rep production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, but it was my work on All-A-Maze that started me out in the field of performance. I was a mascot of sorts for Bob Colonna's RI Shakespeare Theater and I continued to work throughout high school both at Classical and at Barker Playhouse as an actor and stage manager.

2. How has living in Rhode Island played a role in your work?

As a native of Providence, I feel steeped in the history and culture of RI. I believe that growing up in RI has given me a sense that anything is possible, because in this state you are only one person away from getting the resources you need to try out an idea.  This inter-connectedness is essential in the arts, and has really helped me in my work, whether that has been getting the Lt. Governor to perform in a piece about the US Constitution or enlisting the Providence Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism to help promote the Magdalena USA: Women in Contemporary Theatre Festival (an international festival that I ran in 2005). My work continues to be informed by the Providence I grew up in, a city transitioning from the industrial age to a creative economy.

3. You're a bit of a lone wolf, as a woman running a major arts organization in RI. Do you feel you get the exposure, consideration, as much as the guys?

Well, I did feel like a lone wolf when I returned to take over Perishable Theatre in 2006; at that time, I was the first female artistic director that Perishable had ever had and I was running a space dedicated not only to experimental performance, but that really emphasizes work written, directed, produced, and designed by women.  It wasn't hard to feel as though the chips were stacked against me. But by building the Resident Artist at Perishable Theatre program, that supports hybrid theatre artists for up to 3 years while they develop new pieces, I have found folks who share my love of experimentation and we have been able to build engaged audiences.  Since I started, there have been some other women to take up the mantle of artistic direction of an arts organization: Amiee Turner at Theatre by the Sea, Amber Kelly of Theater of Thought, and now Reza Clifton with Roots Cafe come to mind, as does the fantastic Rachel Walshe, who has been serving as Perishable's Acting Artistic Director while I have been on sabbatical this year.

There is no doubt that there are systemic problems in the fields of non-profit and commercial theatre, as well as many other fields, that perpetuate a focus on male-run organizations. That said, I think that the men running our sister theatres in RI are fantastic and supportive colleagues, banded together by the belief that a rising tide carries all boats.

4. What's next for you?

I am continuing to work on local composer Steven Lee Jobe's opera The Legend of the Fairy Melusine which we will be performing excerpts of in late May, but first I will be directing Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room, Or, The Vibrator Play (April 29-May 29) for 2nd Story Theatre in Warren. I am thrilled to be back in the creative flow.

5. What's the biggest challenge about working in Rhode Island? The greatest reward?

The biggest challenge about working in Rhode Island? Fund-raising. The greatest reward? Being in a community ready to take creative risks.

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