From NYE to All-Year Arts, FirstWorks Looks Back
December 1, 2023

by Ken Abrams for Providence Monthly

“It’s kind of amazing,” says FirstWorks founder and executive director Kathleen Pletcher as she reflects on what the arts agency has accomplished over the past 20 years. Founded in 2004, FirstWorks has become one of the premier arts organizations in the region. Approaching its 20th anniversary, the Providence-based non-profit has come a long way from its origins as an extension of a once popular New Year’s Eve celebration.

“I came to Providence as artistic director of First Night, the one-night New Year’s Eve festival. After 9-11, First Nights around the country started to go dark; it couldn’t get traction as a one-night festival,” says Pletcher, who went on to establish FirstWorks, an organization dedicated to bringing high-quality performing arts to communities across the region.

From the beginning, FirstWorks has served an educational mission, presenting visiting artists in area schools and running a summer camp. “Education was part of something we did from the very beginning; there would always be a performance and a workshop,” Pletcher explains. “About 10 years ago, we made it part and parcel of our mission. We’re about live performance, but the idea of how live performance broadens out is really important to us. We now have a youth board, and their voices are helping us understand what is meaningful. We’re statewide, primarily serving under-resourced BIPOC youth, but also looking at ways to link us together and connect.”

In recent years, artists as diverse as Rosanne Cash, Mavis Staples, and Blind Boys of Alabama have graced local stages, and FirstWorks takes the lead in securing talent for the annual PVDFest. Pletcher considers multiple factors when curating events. “I’m really inspired by the visions of artists, nationally and internationally, and increasing locally,” she explains. “Who are outstanding artists? Sometimes those are emerging artists who I’m getting introduced to, and sometimes it’s like, ‘are we really going to have Alvin Ailey for the first time ever in Rhode Island?’ We love doing that too.”

Celebrating diversity and inclusion is at the core of FirstWork’s mission. “The diversity is deliberate – it’s part of our strategic plan,” says Pletcher. “FirstWorks has been this way since the very beginning. It is a real belief in respecting, celebrating, and honoring diverse voices. We’re coalescing people’s interests and doing work that we believe is relevant. This season, we have Rennie Harris, presenting the third project he and the company have done here. Listen to what he is saying through ‘Rome & Jewels’ about his belief in hip-hop being a means to unite us, how he’s hacking the classics.”   

From December 1-3, FirstWorks hosts Boston-based MASARY Studios, an experiential audio/visual project featuring an a cappella choir and commissioned composer. Following last year’s Three Nights of Lights, the event brings FirstWorks full circle, back to its First Night roots, by providing outdoor events during the holiday season.

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