There’s something special about the concept of summer repertory theater; in a short span of time, adventurous theatergoers can see an assortment of plays and get to know the talent involved in a number of different capacities; we get to see a talented young actor take a turn as a comedic leading man and then, two weeks later, sing a role as a violent antagonist, only to watch him sensitively direct a third production two weeks after that. And a young woman can take the role of a beautiful ingenue, then expertly costume a cast of 15, and move on to essay one of Chekhov’s legendary women, all in the span of a month. Summer rep turns a theater near you into something like a local sports team — it gives you a collection of young and talented hardworking people to watch, interact with, get to know, and root for, as they entertain and engage you via a collection of stories across the summer.
It’s why I dearly love and anticipate Princeton Summer Theater’s 2012 season. With a mainstage season of A Little Night Music, Gaslight, Boeing Boeing, and The American Plan and a series of family programming, the great variety available affords us all an opportunity for solid theater right in the heart of town. And when you frequent PST, you’re also contributing to the future of theater on a different level: PST productions are produced, soup to nuts, by students and recent alumni from some of the best universities around the country, with Princeton University students at the core of the company. In years past, company members have hailed from, in addition to Princeton, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, Columbia University, Juilliard, and more. It’s an incubator and training ground for the next generation of theatrical professionals, and it’s a great way to participate in that next step while taking in an enjoyable show.
My affection for PST was earned firsthand; I was a part of the company from 2002 through 2005, and served on the managing board in 2004 and 2005, first as publicity director, then as business manager. I came into the company an actor and playwright, and by the end of my tenure in 2005, I had a newfound understanding for the business elements of theater. It taught me how to properly respect and interact with audiences around Princeton-seeing PST patrons and subscribers week after week became a special treat, and to this day, seven years later, there are patrons I bump into around town and find time to reminisce about our shared experiences there.
And I think, in the grand scheme of things, that’s the best thing about PST. It’s an environment that encourages perhaps the most valuable tenet of theater I’ve learned: the thing that makes theater great is never what’s happening onstage. The talent and craft displayed on any stage, anywhere, can elevate a story to very good, but without an audience that’s rapt and invested, it can’t be sustained. The intimacy of the Hamilton Murray Theater mixes with the youthful energy and drive of the company and the familiarity and enthusiasm of the audiences to create a theater community in the truest sense of the word-Princeton Summer Theater is a place where, for nine short weeks every summer, the town-and-gown divide between the university and the town dissolves into evenings of great entertainment. It’s a place where there’s real joy in the community created here.
Across those four summers, I learned lessons in areas expected and otherwise; I learned to swing a hammer, to hang lights (and, sometimes, the consequences of dropping heavy things from the catwalk.), I learned what Princeton-area theatergoers liked and disliked in terms of subscription plans and communications and programming. I learned to manage money and good and bad methods of artistic leadership. And I learned to cook for large numbers of people-maybe one of the more surprising elements of PST was that, every night, the company gathered together in the kitchen of Murray-Dodge Hall and took turns cooking dinner. Through some spectacularly creative (and yes, occasionally questionable) meals, we became a company of performers on a level that surprised many of us. The closeness developed between the 15 to 20 professionals of PST, the constant contact for nine weeks or more, creates bonds that last a lifetime. It’s more than a job creating a summer’s worth of high-quality theater-it’s akin to the parts of family, good and bad, that we find in strong friendships of our youth.
And, speaking for myself, these are friendships that will last a lifetime. Last September, I officiated the wedding of my good friend Jed Peterson in the Princeton University Chapel. It was a friendship that began in the summer of 2003, when we were in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead together. In 2004 and 2005, he was artistic director of the company, and we worked on eleven shows together as actors, directors, producers, and friends. And he and his wife are two of the best friends a guy like me could ask for; what you’re watching when you watch a PST show is more than just an evening’s entertainment, it’s the budding stages of a lifetime’s worth of relationships.
PST is a place where artists come into their own, and in my experiences working for other organizations around the country over the last decade, I’ve yet to find anything quite like it. I invite you to do more than take in one show this summer-take in at least two (or three, or four), and then head over to Thomas Sweet or the Bent Spoon with your date and discuss how these experiences compare and contrast-share opinions on actors taking on different roles, compare direction of one production to another, and take part in this fascinating arts community that emerges, every summer, in our own backyard.
I wish you the good fortune of seeing a few shows at PST this summer. And I look forward to seeing you there.
Editor’s note: Elliott earned a BA in English from the College of New Jersey and a master’s in arts management from George Mason University. He has more than 10 years of arts management and marketing experience, beginning with Princeton Summer Theater in 2002. He currently runs communications for a healthcare organization in Philadelphia, while serving as a freelance theater reviewer at U.S. 1 and pop culture commentator for the popular nationwide sites Cinema Blend and Pop Break. He is “Internet ordained” and plans to officiate two more weddings in the next two years.
The 2012 PST Season
Every summer since 1968, a group of students and young professional actors have gathered in Hamilton Murray Theater in Princeton University’s Murray-Dodge Hall to present a summer season of mainstage productions as well as special productions and workshops for children and families. It’s called Princeton Summer Theater.
This summer’s season includes four main-stage productions that run the gamut from psychological thriller to comedy and romance: “A Little Night Music,” “Gaslight,” “Boeing Boeing,” and “The American Plan.” Additionally, a new play by Shawn Fennell, a 2010 graduate of Princeton and member of the PST company, will premiere as the children’s production this summer.
Stephen Sondheim’s musical romantic comedy “A Little Night Music” starts the season with performances Thursdays through Sundays, June 21 to 24 and June 28 to July 1. Inspired by an Ingmar Bergman film and named for a Mozart serenade, the musical tells the story of the intersecting romances of the couples at Madame Armfeldt’s country mansion.
The tone of the series does a 180 for the second production, Patrick Hamilton’s thriller “Gaslight,” which runs Thursdays through Sundays, July 5 though 8 and 12 to 15. Set in London in 1880, the play chronicles Mr. and Mrs. Manningham’s slow descent into madness.
Comedy returns for the season’s third production, “Boeing Boeing,” playing July 19 to 22 and 26 to 29. Hilarity ensues when Bernard, an American playboy juggling three flight attendant fiancees, finds them all scheduled to arrive at his Paris apartment at the same time.
The final show of the season is Richard Greenberg’s “The American Plan.” The story of Lili Adler, her mother Eva, and Nick Lockerbridge, the boy Lili meets on vacation in the Catskills, is on stage August 2 to 5 and 9 to 12.
The children’s play runs Thursdays through Saturdays, July 5 to 7, 12 to 14, and 26 to 28, and August 2 to 4 at 11 a.m. Tickets are $9. Workshops for kids are Fridays beginning July 6 from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. and include Movement and Dance, Improv, Mask & Costume, Playwriting, Lights, Set & Sound, and Voice & Impersonation.
Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University. www.princetonsummertheater.org or call 609-258-7062.