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Blackstone River Theatre Opens a Window into Rhode Island's Past

By Marina I. Jokic

The Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland, Rhode Island has entertained and amused audiences for over 17 years. The BRT's approach to the performing arts is with an eye to world traditions, but with an emphasis on the ethnic groups who settled in the Blackstone River Valley, a national heritage site in the U.S.

The Blackstone River Valley of Massachusetts and Rhode Island is widely known as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution where the U.S. made the transformation from farm to factory. The first hydro-powered cotton-spinning textile mill was built in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1790, single-handedly propelling the country toward industrialization. As new and larger mills were constructed during the 1800's, workers were needed to fill them, among them Irish, French Canadian, Polish, Swedish, and Portuguese. The Blackstone Valley became an epicenter of diverse cultures and traditions.

Executive director of the BRT Russell Gusetti is devoted to cultivating the arts in the local community, including music, dance, and theatrical performances. To that end, the BRT provides performance and educational opportunities for artists and visitors. As part of their Heritage Arts Studio Initiative, the theater offers arts education classes and workshops such as Irish dance, fiddle, Erhu, stone carving, guitar, dulcimer, and even basket weaving. The rich variety of classes speaks to the theater's goal of preserving the cultural heritage of the area.

"Blackstone River Theatre's programming links interpretation of Blackstone River Valley culture to the traditional folk arts agenda of the theatre," Gusetti said. "Though many people associate the word 'culture' with only the fine arts, culture actually embodies every activity in which we as individuals, families, and communities engage."

Gusetti believes that traditional and folk art passed from generation to generation is a culture's best way of preserving its legacy. Affording a place for this process to unfold, the BRT enables children and adults to indulge themselves in the world of local art and crafts and meanwhile sparking an ongoing dialogue. With most families no longer teaching their kids their cultural history and traditions and with many schools cutting arts programs across the country, the role of such institutions as BRT is essential.

"Blackstone River Theatre strives to be a place where both children and adults can be immersed in an artistic atmosphere while meeting people from varied backgrounds and life experiences," Gusetti said. "As a cultural arts center, the heritage of the Blackstone River Valley, as well as world music, acoustic blues and more have found a home at Blackstone River Theatre."

In addition to weekly concerts, BRT offers occasional children's shows, dancing, and an art gallery of rotating work showcasing local artists. The theater also rents its space for public and private functions. Events that have taken place include environmental and preservation workshops; public forums on education and youth leadership; ESL; Zumba; and women's self-defense classes among many others.

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