Back to school at BRT

Back to school at BRT

Heritage Arts Studio lets students discover, reconnect with music and dance traditions

CUMBERLAND – On any given day at the Blackstone River Theatre, you might find a group of adults playing the five-string banjo or practicing their mountain dulcimers or learning the art of basket weaving.

These classes and workshops, along with many others, are all part of the Heritage Arts Studio initiative at the theater, 549 Broad St., which offers lessons in traditional art forms taught by respected performers and teachers, says BRT Executive Director Russell Gusetti.

Enrollment for the fall session at the theater, which is celebrating its 20th year of programming this year, is currently open.

What’s unique about the classes, Gusetti said, is that they’re geared toward adults and taught in a group setting.

“If you have always been curious about a certain instrument or dance style … and want to learn it in a non-threatening, very affordable environment, this is the place to do it,” he said.

Classes include a six-week series of beginner, continuing and advanced beginner five-string banjo lessons, taught by Ed Sweeney, which will take place on Saturdays, beginning Sept. 14.

Sweeney, a performer who is also on BRT’s board of directors, will also teach continuing beginner classes in guitar on Saturdays, starting Sept. 14.

The fee is $90 per student per six-week session.

Sweeney will also teach a six-week group guitar workshop for intermediate acoustic guitar players on Mondays, starting Sept. 16, and will hold two 90-minute guitar workshops on both Beatles and Christmas music for intermediate finger style guitarists on Saturdays, Nov. 16 and Nov. 23.

Other classes include total beginner and continuing beginner ukulele with Armand Aromin on Thursdays, starting Oct. 10, as well as workshops in continuing mountain dulcimer on Saturdays, Oct. 26 and Nov. 16, with Aubrey Atwater and beginner mountain dulcimer with her husband, Elwood Donnelly.

Donnelly will also teach a basket weaving workshop on Sunday, Nov. 17.

Atwater, also a member of BRT’s board, will lead a four-week class in Singing Traditional Folk Songs on Wednesdays, beginning Oct. 9, and will also teach a clogging workshop on Saturday, Nov. 2.

Atwater said she’s one of only a couple of people in the region who teach and perform clogging, which she learned in Kentucky, so a workshop like this is a “rare opportunity.”

The classes and workshops are not intimidating, she said. Taught with warmth and hospitality, they are “open to people curious about folk tradition.”

Percussionist Kyle Forsthoff will offer beginner and continuing beginner workshops in bodhran, the Irish drum, on Sundays, beginning Sept. 29.

Laura Travis will host a two-day workshop in Celtic stone carving for beginners on Saturday, Oct. 5 and Sunday, Oct. 6.

Also offered are nine-week sessions of seven levels of fiddle classes with instructor Cathy Clasper-Torch who performs in The Gnomes and as part of the Atwater-Donnelly Trio and has taught at the theater for over 13 years.

With about 50 adult fiddle students ranging from age 16 to 86, Clasper-Torch said, “it’s a nice flow of new students but what’s also really heartening is how many have continued to keep it up.”

She said the group setting is “not as intimidating as a private lesson might be” and that it’s fun because everyone in the class is there because they want to be there.

Tir Na Nog Irish Dance continues to offer 23 levels of non-competitive Irish step dance classes for children and teens with instructor Erika Damiani. Hard shoe, soft shoe and troupe classes are available.

Both Tir Na Nog Irish Dance and the advanced fiddlers, who call themselves The Broad Street Fiddlers, often perform outside of BRT, but Gusetti noted that students are not forced to perform if they’re not comfortable.

“This should be a cool journey into learning something at your own pace” with help from not only the instructor but from fellow classmates, he said.

Both the Irish step dance and fiddle classes started last week but anyone interested can add in by contacting .

For more information about specific classes and to register, visit .

Over the past 20 years, the theater, including the assortment of classes, has grown quite a bit, Gusetti said.

“We started very small” with a few instructors teaching knitting and Irish dance classes, he said. Now, especially in the past two years with help from a grant to fix the upstairs space, classes have grown and are offered on all three levels of the theater.

Gusetti said he hopes to add more visual arts classes in the future, as well as possible summer sessions.

“It’s all really just trying to expose people to music and traditions that they (maybe) didn’t grow up with,” Gusetti said. “You don’t have to be a certain nationality to like that music or culture, to know that it’s out there and to experience it.”

In addition to offering classes six days a week, the theater hosts more than 45 concerts annually and Gusetti has also produced nine Summer Solstice Festivals at Cumberland’s Diamond Hill Park.

As the theater enters its 20th season, the fall concert schedule showcases the diverse traditional and ethnic music that the theater has become recognized for on a regional basis, Gusetti said.

Kicking off the season on Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. will be Cumberland native Cory Pesaturo, a three-time world accordion champion. The next night, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m., the Swedish trio Väsen will return as they celebrate their 30th anniversary as a band.

For a full schedule, visit the theater’s website at . Gusetti said he’s also been working with Cumberland High School students, offering them a space to host performances and letting them know that there’s a performing arts and teaching venue in town.

Over the summer, in preparation for kicking off their 20th season, BRT has undergone renovations, including the restoration of the theater’s main hall floor and lower lobby, which had sustained water damage to many parts over the years.

Blackstone River Theatre, the former site of the Unity Masonic Lodge built in 1928 and abandoned in 1987, also received $9,908 from the Rhode Island Foundation to address deferred maintenance by investing in façade improvements, landscaping, and streetscape enhancements, which helps make it a leading partner in the Broad Street Regeneration Initiative, says Chairman Timothy Draper. Also this summer, the theater received recognition as the state’s Best Folk Venue at Rhode Island Monthly’s Best of Awards. Later this month, Gusetti, a Cumberland native, will be inducted into the William Blackstone Society at the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council’s annual induction and awards celebration in recognition for his work at Blackstone River Theatre.

Through it all, Gusetti has “created a community that feels like a family,” Atwater said. “I’m really proud of him and to be associated with the theater.”

Members of the Broad Street Fiddlers, advanced students from Cathy Clasper-Torch’s group fiddle classes, now also perform at community events such as the Summer Solstice Festival held in June at Diamond Hill Park. Clasper-Torch is at the piano at right.
Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater will teach two mountain dulcimer workshops at BRT this fall.