When the summer comes to a close, it can be easy to find yourself wondering “what is there to do in Westerly?” While we’re lucky to have an abundance of restaurants and shops, year-round entertainment can be harder to come by, but the United Theater is looking to make this conundrum a thing of the past.
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As a quick introduction (or a quick refresher, for those already in the know!) the United Theater began as a vaudeville venue in the 1920s, eventually transitioning to a movie theater until it’s closure in 1986. Largely vacant since then, it was purchased by the Westerly Land Trust in 2003 as part of its Urban Initiative and its restoration slowly started to take place over the next decade and a half, ramping up significantly over the past few years.
The vision is to provide Westerly with its own hub for arts, culture, and entertainment, in the form of an afterschool music program, three small cinema rooms offering first-run film screenings, a performing arts space, and collaborative efforts with Rhode Island Public Radio and the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals.
I recently caught up with Public Relations Manager Tony Nunes to see what the latest developments are at the theater and how Covid-19 has affected them, and I’m happy to report that while the pandemic has certainly impacted their plans, it’s also created unexpected opportunities!
“We’re actually moving at a very rapid pace right now, with all hands on deck,” Tony shared. “Obviously with COVID, things are weird and determining exactly when we’re opening is a little challenging, but we’re on track and looking at Spring 2021 for a full opening.”
Before the spring’s grand opening, however, United’s satellite branch of the Rhode Island Philharmonic School will open its doors to students for after-school lessons beginning in January, staffed by local educators who are currently being selected.
As with all things this year, flexibility is key, and fortunately, this was already a part of the United’s plan. Their black box performing space was designed to be versatile, both in terms of what can take place there (concerts, film screenings, plays) and how many people can attend.
“If we still need to be social distancing in April or May, we can,” Tony explained. “It’s not what we had in mind initially, but we’re grateful.”
Excitement has definitely been building since the project first began taking shape years ago, and social distancing has only helped to enhance this. In an area that’s largely lacking in year-round entertainment options and in an age when people are arguably more interested than ever in a little safe escapism, the United Theater is going to be ready to provide.
While plans for pop up events over the summer had to be scrapped or re-worked, United smartly partnered with the Misquamicut Drive In to offer live music and movie screenings at the beach as more people sought out the socially-distanced fun of drive-ins.
“The movie exhibition industry has been going through a lot of changes anyway, and COVID has been expediting some of those,” Tony explained. “It’s hard to tell what the industry will look like in the coming years when it comes to big-budget films, but smaller films are thriving right now.”
The pandemic has created an opening for studios to release these smaller-budget movies virtually via streaming services or to independent cinemas, allowing places like the United to be a part of their premiers and help them earn revenue.
“It’s giving us an opportunity to introduce the kind of movies we were already going to be screening, but earlier than originally planned,” he shared.
Be sure to add the United Theater to your list of “Things to Do Post COVID” – with so many different options in one place, you’re sure to find something new to love!