United Theatre

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Movies, concerts, exhibits and more: The new United Theatre in Westerly is a multifaceted arts center

Patrons find their seats for the Rebirth Brass Band show at the United Theatre in Westerly on Sept. 1. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Published September 12. 2021 12:01AM 

By Kristina Dorsey   Day staff writer

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On a recent Wednesday night, downtown Westerly was fairly quiet as the Northeast was awaiting the arrival of the remnants of Hurricane Ida. But it wasn’t raining yet, and there was one place in town that was pulling in plenty of people: the United Theatre.

Groups of folks ambled across Canal Street and strode under the lighted marquee and into the newly reopened and extensively renovated theater. They walked into the red-walled lobby, where they were greeted by theater employees. Some patrons lingered in the lobby. Others wandered to the concession stand.

And all eventually headed into the United’s black box theater, where the Rebirth Brass Band had concert-goers moving to the boisterous, infectious music.

The United Theatre has been in the planning stages for seven years and under construction for two, with the renovation costing about $18 million. While there were some pop-up events along the way, the United Theatre in Westerly officially opened this summer, and it’s now going full bore.

Westerly residents who have come into the United Theatre have told Executive Director Lisa Utman Randall, “I can’t believe I’m in Westerly” because they were amazed that a place like the United Theatre exists in town.

Indeed, the United Theatre is more than a theater; it’s a wide-ranging arts center.

It is offering everything from movie screenings to live concerts to art exhibits.

The black box space that can accommodate up to 600 people will, going forward, boast such acts as musician Peter Asher on Sept. 16 and the local Salt Marsh Opera staging “Carmen” on Oct. 1 and 3. It has chairs on the main floor that can be rearranged or removed based on the needs of different events. In that same space, a movie screen can come down in front of the balcony to create a small cinema for up to 99 viewers.

Then there are the main cinema, which can seat 76, and a “microcinema” that is perfect for small audiences, with space for no more than 24 viewers. (About a half-hour before the Rebirth Brass Band concert was scheduled to start, the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” was letting out from the microcinema.)

There is an airy gallery space where a portrait series of Westerly residents by photographer Josh Behan opened a little over a week ago. 

Downstairs houses the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School, where 140 students study and practice in rooms that have sound proofing on the walls and ceilings.

The building also has a spot where the South County bureau for The Public’s Radio broadcasts.

And the United Theatre features an adjoining restaurant.

“I’ve been working in the arts nonprofit sector in Rhode Island for 30 years now, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Utman Randall says, referring to all the things that happen in the United Theatre. She gives credit to the board members’ “amazing” ideas and vision.

Artistic Director Tony Nunes notes that the way a movie theater runs is so different from the way a live performance space runs, which is so different from how art galleries or music schools run.

“We’re juggling a lot of different things … There’s a lot of different parts to this whole place. There are not many places that do all of those things put together,” he says.

Utman Randall jokes that it’s like those old Ronco commercials: “But wait! There’s more!”

They have referred to it as a sort of Lincoln Center model, Nunes notes, because at Lincoln Center, affiliate organizations use different venues on the campus.

The history of it

The United Theatre was built in 1926 as a vaudeville house before becoming a movie theater. It closed in 1986 and remained dormant until the Westerly Land Trust bought it in 2006 and the concept for this project was eventually born.

The current United Theatre combines the space of the former United with the adjacent Montgomery Ward store. All told, it’s 31,000 square feet of space.

By design

If the idea to try such a massive undertaking was bold, so is the design inside, which melds history with a 21st-century sensibility.

Decisions on everything from the storefront windows to lighting fixtures took into account historical elements, since it’s an historic property and decisions had to be made under the guidance of the state historic commission.

The lobby kept its original terrazzo flooring. The black box space uses the theater’s original chandeliers, which were restored and now have LED lighting.

There’s a modern flair in, for instance, the use of primary colors. As in the lobby, the walls of the black box space are painted red. The main cinema, meanwhile, boasts bright blue walls and a dappled blue floor that resembles an abstract version of water. The vibrant yellow patterns on the chair upholstery in that cinema evoke the idea of spotlights.

Then there’s the modern technology in the building, which Nunes says “is kind of crazy. It’s very sophisticated, from the projection and the sound to the integration of the spaces — everything is talking to everything. So (that includes) the lights — not the theatrical lights but just the regular lights in the spaces — (and) there are speakers throughout the entire property. There’s ways to patch in for presentations or for recording. The whole building is kind of alive in a technical sense.”

Views from the public

Concert-goers at the Rebirth Brass Band show had plenty of good things to say about the new United Theatre.

Joanne D’Alcomo, who lives in Boston but has a place in Charlestown, R.I., spoke about how wonderful it was to have the restored venue and a blossoming live theater scene in downtown Westerly; it’s a real attraction to the area. Not only that, but there’s so much history, architectural interest, and character, she notes.

For Victor Nazario and wife Lynmar, this was their second time at the United Theatre, following a screening of “Stillwater.” The couple, who live in Charlestown, thought everything in the United was tastefully done; Lynmar says, “It’s beautiful — a great space.”

Nick Barbato of Westerly had been to a movie at the United Theatre before attending the Rebirth Brass Band concert. He recalled that, when he was a kid, he’d walk to the since-closed cinema on Route 1 in Westerly and says now his 13-year-old nephew is doing the same with the United Theatre.

“I tell you, my nephew loves it. Now he can walk to a movie theater in town again,” he says.

Working together

The United Theatre isn’t a stand-alone entity; it’s collaborating with various local organizations. For instance, it and the Chorus of Westerly are developing a community sing-along event, where people would show up, divide into groups led by chorus representatives, learn a popular song — and then sing it all together at the end of the night. The idea is to give people the opportunity to socialize and have a good time, while creating art in song together.

The United Theatre has projects or partnerships as well with the Colonial Theatre in Westerly and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford. Local arts organizations are scheduled to hold performances in the United Theatre, too; the Connecticut Early Music Festival, for instance, will do a Christmas concert.

The United Theatre is a sister venue to the Knickerbocker Music Center. Sometimes, they leverage their bookings, so if they’re dealing with the same booking agency, they can bring a smaller show into the Knick and a larger one into the United. They can work in tandem. 

There is also the hope that the United Theatre will be a great community space where conversations can be had.

“We want to use our spaces and the mediums we present in those spaces — film, music, fine art — to foster dialogues between artists and patrons, explore the process of the creation of art in its many forms, and use the art as a jumping off point to challenge audiences and spark important conversations,” Nunes says.