Tolman theater ‘A Work in Progress’ thanks to outside group

Tolman theater ‘A Work in Progress’ thanks to outside group

Director Jen Roca, left, guides students through a scene with “The Wiz,” played by Mason Pimental, right, at the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Attleboro, Mass. The show Is coming to Tolman High School later this month. (Valley Breeze photos by Ethan Shorey)

PAWTUCKET – An unusual partnership between a homeschool theater group from Attleboro and a public high school in Pawtucket has paid off big for both the group and the school.

Jennifer Roca, executive director with A Work in Progress Productions, said members of her fledgling theater arts group had dreams of restoring an old theater in 2013 when their search brought them to Tolman High School’s auditorium on Exchange Street.

The underutilized facility was ideal for what they needed, but the stage was in rough shape, so Roca and her group proposed a plan to fix it up over time in exchange for very affordable rent. Today, the theater is in much better condition, with new floorboards and properly weighted pipes above the stage, and the theater group that uses it is flourishing. Since starting productions at Tolman in the fall of 2013, the group has grown from 15 students to more than 100.

It’s no secret that a big part of why members of the group have worked to rehab the stage has been for their own use, said Roca, “but what has happened that we didn’t expect is the relationship that has been forged” since they came to Tolman.

Roca said she never expected such a partnership to develop from the group renting the space, adding that she has a great deal of respect for people like former head custodian Donna Ryan and other members of he custodial staff, music teacher Mike Raymond, and Principal Chris Savastano, who have all been so accommodating.

Over the summer, members of the theater company and family members rebuilt the top of the stage. One of the bigger projects they hope to complete in the future is to replace the theater’s light board, said Roca.

Tolman students have long been without a theater program, using the auditorium for little more than rallies and gym classes, but Roca and her team from A Work in Progress are now giving them a taste of acting. She said the hope is to develop an even greater partnership with the Pawtucket School Department in the future.

“Where we were originally motivated to fix up the place for ourselves, now it’s much more than that,” said Roca. Who knows, she added, maybe Tolman students will soon be using the theater for their own productions.

This year, Tolman students will be part of the group’s production “The Wiz,” a modern take on “The Wizard of Oz,” as members of the chorus. This is a fun production full of social media hype, hipsters, and sweeping trends, said Joel Desmarais, marketing and communications intern for the group. Mason Pimental plays The Wiz, while Amanda Beck plays Dorothy.

Watch the official trailer for the show:

Dorothy, joined by her unique new friends, will have to overcome obstacles far from home, squaring off not only with Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, but also with the Wiz himself.

The theme of the production is that all the gadgets and social media followings in the world do not make a person, said Desmarais and Roca, as the hipster “Wiz” is shown to be a fraud. The lesson here, said Roca, is that “you do not have to find your identity in those things.”

Students do much of their rehearsing at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Attleboro, but will use the Tolman stage more as the 12-week rehearsal schedule winds down.

At the beginning, productions at Tolman were drawing about 300 people a night to the 1,300-seat auditorium. For “The Wiz,” members of the group are expecting more than 1,000 people a night.

A Work In Progress Productions is a nonprofit organization devoted to cultivating the arts in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts. It provides high-quality affordable programs in drama, dance, and music to students of all ages, states a release.

The theater company seeks to provide professional, educational experiences for cast members and enjoyment for audiences through each production and class. At the core of the group is outreach, said leaders. The “In Progress Fund” has given thousands of dollars in scholarship money to students each semester, and costs are kept low to serve families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford classes in the arts. The company’s traveling outreach group, Salt + Light, does dramatic workshops for free at schools, churches, and other community centers in the area.

Performances of “The Wiz” at Tolman High are scheduled for Nov. 20-21 at 7:30 p.m. are available at .

Volunteers from A Work in Progress Productions fix the stage at Tolman High School over the summer.