Many listeners have been mesmerized over the years by the trials and tribulations of former Providence mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. Our beloved Trinity Rep has brought this story to stage in the play The Prince of Providence. One of the lead actors is a Providence native, Erick Betancourt, who has his own compelling story to tell.  

Erick Betancourt, a graduate of the University of Rhode Island and the Actors Studio in New York City, has performed in theaters throughout the U.S., most recently at Trinity Rep in the play The Prince of Providence.  

Frederic Reamer: Eric, what led you to a career in theatre?

Eric Betancourt: Well, I didn't know I can act. And so I met this gentleman by the name of Bruce Riley at Rhode Island State Prison. And we had became friends in the prison library. And fast forward years later, he was writing a play here at the perishable theater. And I was helping a young man who needed some transportation because he was involved in gangs. And so he asked me for a ride to this audition, and on the way to the audition, I decided to go upstairs with him to introduce myself because that that time I was a youth advocate with the non-violence institute. And so going upstairs, the door opens and surprise, it's Bruce Riley.

Frederic Reamer: So you you were sentenced to prison in the early 2000s. You were sentenced because you were convicted of two felony drug charges. What led you to prison?

Eric Betancourt: Well, I had dropped out of high school, I lived in the tough neighborhood. I personally lived in Providence, and in what's called Manton Avenue, in the housing projects. And then I also lived in New York City at the time in the South Bronx. And so living in both places, and dealing with the back and forth sometimes with my grandmother sometimes when my mother was a little unstable, and so the opportunities came to deal drugs. That was around my neighborhood, and it was everywhere around me. And so I got involved in it and and sort of committed my life to it. Sort of.

Frederic Reamer: So your journey clearly has been very complex - filled with complicated twists and turns and the great news is you've landed on your feet. What enabled you to do that?

Eric Betancourt: Well, after I, after I did that first production at the Perishable Theatre, I fell in love with theatre and wanted to pursue it and do it seriously. And so, at that point, I reached out to local community theaters here in Providence, Rhode Island, and, and looked to get involved in theatre even if I didn't have to audition because I was so bad at it and - green is the word - that I wanted to be in a place where I didn't have to really audition but get my legs in the right place. And some places open the doors for me like the Artists' Exchange Theatre, the Mixed Magic Theatre and that's where I started honing my craft. I went from there to CCRI. I studied at the community college of Rhode Island I was getting my associates degree But I was getting my associates degree, just in general studies, I wasn't really sure at the point when I was going to do. And after a few plays that I did in Providence, and throughout Providence, I fell in love with it. And the next option was to go to the University of Rhode Island where I could get my bachelor's degree. And the cool thing about URI was that you didn't have to audition. You were just you know, either accepted and not accepted. But you know, you can learn the all the avenues of theatre and you didn't have to audition. So I thought that was a great place for me to start.

Frederic Reamer: What has your life in theatre been like? What does it meant to you?

Eric Betancourt: It changed my life and given me a sense of focus and direction. determination and purpose is really the word to wake up every day and have something that you enjoy doing. I do it for little or no money and I remember doing it for no money. And, and and yeah, now opportunities are coming and have presented themselves where there is some money involved, but I still do it for the passion of it. Because passion is what saved my life.

Frederic Reamer: You grew up in Providence for part of your life at a time when Buddy Cianci was mayor. Right? What is it like for you to be on stage at Trinity Rep. in a lead role in a play about the man who was your mayor?

Eric Betancourt: Yeah, I was a young kid when he was around. So, I always saw the car and was always fascinated by seeing him wherever he was. But being at Trinity just means the world to me, because you may not know this, but Trinity was a place that I admired as a young kid. Admired! Like I would walk from Manton Avenue all the way down Atwells Avenue, all the way across Federal Hill to come and look at the building. I even worked at Trinity from 2006 to 2012. They gave me an opportunity to work there as a security guard while I was attending the University of Rhode Island. I worked as their security guard and then volunteered sometimes to be an usher because if you were volunteering as an usher, you could watch the shows for free. And so I would watch the shows over and over - same show. I would watch it from one side of the wing to the other side of the wing, and and fell in love with the actors there. Joe Wilson, Barbara Meek, Fred Sullivan, Jr., Morrow, Rachel, Steven, Brian. Janice was one of my favorites. Janice's husband, then later on, helped me to to get my audition monologues ready for graduate school. Mark Peckham helps me to get my monologues prepared for graduate school. And so it all came and started from there, really.

Frederic Reamer: And did it occur to you even for a moment during those years that one day you would be performing on that stage?

Eric Betancourt: No, I fantasized about it, I guess you know, but I didn't think I had what it took to be on that stage. It was to me they were our local Royal Shakespeare. And it just meant the world that I was asked to be a part of it. And I came back and it was kind of euphoric. You know, I was in an emotional state, I guess, for the first few rehearsals. And then as things unwind, and I started realizing that everyone embraced me and everyone invited me into the family that I just felt like, okay, maybe I do belong, or I can hold my own on this stage as well.

Frederic Reamer: You told us that this theater career started in prison. Yeah. What was it like for you being in prison?

Eric Betancourt: It was a tough transition. I was fortunate in the sense that I was popular in the streets of Providence. Rhode Island - a small state. And I was pretty popular in the sense that I knew people from different backgrounds and different cultures. So I could go to Federal Hill and I can go to the Chad Brown and the housing projects of Wiggins Village, I could go to the south side of Providence in the Latino community. I am Latino, I'm Puerto Rican. And, and so that opened up a lot of doors for me and I speak both languages. And so yeah, being in prison, in the sense of knowing a few people here and there who was available to me. But the restrictions and the pressure of being incarcerated and dealing with the day to day was heartbreaking. Very difficult for me. I remember being, you know, stripped, you know, stripped of my clothing the first day I was there, and then thrown in a room with 50-60 people that I didn't know with one little toilet. And, you know, it was really difficult to adjust. And, you know, and it's a bunch of people at the same time and everyone's there for different crimes. So you're kind of thrown in with, you know, maybe murderers and rapists and then drug dealers and homeless and so as a population of people. I put my best foot forward and and tried to avoid as many conflicts as I could, and pretty much did that by getting immersed in programs. There was some programs available. I got introduced to what's called the non violence program in prison. And that program has been another life saving lifeline for me in my life.

Frederic Reamer: Some inmates, once they leave prison are able to turn their lives around and not return. And sadly, there are many inmates who leave prison and end up returning What was it about you that enabled you to follow the path that you have followed and not go back to that world?

Eric Betancourt: I think it was a sense of community. As soon as I came out of prison, I had the bracelet on my ankle, I had home confinement. I did a work release program. And those were tough times. I was jumping on the bus every morning going out to Bristol. going out to Barrington, to Pawtucket, working in factories at six in the morning and coming home five in the afternoon and I was kind of feeling a little lost. Some of these places would hire me because I was in the prison system. But when I was out, they wouldn't hire me full time to give me the full pay. So I was dealing with that challenge of being rejected every time I walked into these places and asked for full time pay now that I was finally completing my prison sentence. And when I found theater, the way that we did that first production at the perishable theater, which was called "The House of Death," by Bruce Riley. The first time we did that, at the time we were doing that we built the set by ourselves. We knocked the wood down. We set up the lights. We painted the set, and we bought our own costumes or put costumes together to make it you know what we thought it was. And I think that sense of community gave me a sense of purpose of feeling like I had a group of people that just wanted me to be there without any expectations. And so I felt liberated being In the theater world, where I could just be there perform be good or bad at it, but be accepted for who I was without any expectations.

Frederic Reamer: Eric, you have a very compelling and inspiring story. Is there anything else you'd like listeners to know?

Eric Betancourt: I really wanted to say thank you to a lot of people that helped me get to this point. And if it's all right, I would like to list a few people. And that's Lola Lang, Shirley Dumars. My brother Fernando Betancourt, the Institute for the study and practice of non violence, the john hope settlement house, and URI and family and loved ones people who gave me a sense of purpose and a sense of identity. And now also Trinity repertory, who has brought me back home, who has allowed me to be on the stage and allowed me to be a part of what I think is going to be the rest of my life a theater actor.