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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the October 3, 2001
of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A New Theater for New Work
Sure, most theaters shy away from doing new and
work," says Leona Maffei, founder of the Lawrenceville Repertory
Company. "But not us."
These words may not sound particularly shocking to the casual
but for those who prize theater as an evolving art form, they ring
with an almost revolutionary zeal.
To say that most professional theater companies — let alone
theaters — shy away from producing new work is something of an
understatement. A stroll along Broadway or a quick perusal of U.S.
1’s local theater season preview of several weeks ago will reveal
a minuscule offering of new work being given mainstage productions.
As one might guess, the reason is economic. Why should a theater risk
time, money, and reputation on developing something new and unproven
when money-making old chestnuts sits waiting to be picked?
"I love new work," says Maffei. Putting deed to the word,
she has chosen to produce two new historical plays to launch
Repertory Company’s first season. "Masada," and
both by Lawrenceville playwright Frederick Olessi, will be staged
at Artists Showcase Theatre at 1150 Indiana Avenue in Trenton on
and Saturday, October 5 and 6, and Friday and Saturday, October 12
and 13 at 8 p.m. There will also be a Sunday matinee performance on
Sunday, October 14, at 2 p.m. Both short plays will be staged at each
Leona Maffei, who has founded the Lawrenceville Repertory Company
with help from her husband David Maffei and directs both of LRC’s
opening works, says that she simply relishes the opportunity to
original work. In a telephone interview from her home in Lawrence
Township, she discusses just why doing new work is so exciting.
"I personally learn a lot and developing a new play has added
depth to my directing," she says. "Instead of being given
a character that everyone already knows and expects certain things
from, as would be the case in an already well-established play, I
enjoy the challenge of taking an active role in molding new characters
into something I feel they represent. That’s the height of
Maffei believes that seeing new work also offers audiences a special
treat that they may not experience when watching the well-hewn
"Audiences get to come in without any expectations," she
"They can watch all these emotions and characters fly out at them
from the stage and it gives them the chance to get swept away with
the show. That’s why I just love original work."
Olessi’s short play "Rumi" chronicles the deep friendship
between Rumi, the 12th-century Persian poet and philosopher, and the
wanderer Shams. Their shared search for God culminates in the murder
of Shams and the emergence of Rumi, one of the best loved poets in
history who remains a 21st century best-seller.
"Masada," set in the year 73 AD, covers an eight-hour period
in ancient Israeli history. The Roman Army is preparing to attack
and claim the mountain fortress of Masada, which is occupied by 1,000
Jewish Zealots. This historic event is told through the eyes of two
Romans and four Zealots.
Following the performance of Saturday, October 13, there will be a
panel discussion featuring Marvin Goldstein, the co-director of the
Koppelman Holocaust Center at Rider University; Dominick Iorio,
of philosophy at Rider University; as well as a Muslim educator from
Philadelphia yet to be announced. The discussion, to be moderated
by Maffei and Olessi, and joined by members of the cast, will focus
on the meaning of "Masada" in today’s world.
Both Leona (whose maiden name is Soltesz) and her husband David grew
up in Bordentown. Leona’s father worked in sales in the Philadelphia
area and her mother was a homemaker. David’s father worked for the
State of New Jersey and was one of the founders of the Public
Office. His mother was also a homemaker.
David graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson and went on to study at the
New York Chiropractor College, graduating in 1981. Leona graduated
from College of New Jersey in 1970 with her teaching degree. After
she and David married in 1970 and moved to Lawrenceville, she worked
as a teacher in the Burlington City school district. She now works
as a massage therapist, working side-by-side with her husband in the
chiropractic business that they run out of their home at 3640
Road. Although neither David nor Leona had much experience working
in theater, it was nevertheless a passion they’d long kept close to
"We had always been interested in theater, but found we were
too busy with things like school and making a living," says
"Finally, about six years ago we took the plunge, starting by
getting small parts in the chorus of several musicals like `Oklahoma,’
`Once Upon a Mattress,’ and `Carousel.’ We loved it."
David soon landed a lead role in a production of "Heaven Can
for the Bordentown Players and Leona was drawn to directing. "I
enjoy performing onstage, but I think I enjoy being behind the stage
a bit more," she explains. "I think that’s where I’m going
to stay." She worked as an assistant director in a production
of "The Music Man" in Newtown, and then directed "Heaven
Can Wait" in Bordentown.
"I think what makes theater so special even in today’s world is
the simple fact that it is live," says Maffei. "You see
performing right before your eyes. What you see is what you get. In
TV or movies, it may take 10 takes to get a scene right, but when
you’re onstage you only get one shot. There’s a powerful energy
Maffei, a member of St. Ann’s Choir in Lawrenceville, got the idea
to start her own repertory theater while attending choir practice.
"I simply looked around the room one day and noticed all the
that there was around me," she says. "I knew some of the
there had worked in community theater before. Between the schools
that participate in drama here and all the adults, there’s a natural
base of talent. To me, starting a theater in Lawrenceville was the
next logical step."
Right now the Maffeis are funding LRC all by themselves, but they
are actively looking for sponsors. "We’re always interested in
people who are interested in us," says Maffei. "We’d like
help in covering the costs of the theater and the things that we do,
like costumes and sets, and all the little things that come up that
you don’t expect along the way. We’ve been fortunate so far because
we’ve had a lot of people donating their time to work with us."
They recently invested in lighting equipment and a sound system.
feel that in today’s world, mobilization is very important," she
points out. "Now we can take our lights and sound system into
another facility, like a church or a synagogue, and put a show on.
It’s wonderful not to have to be tied to one location."
Although the company is initially using Artists Showcase Theatre in
Trenton as a home base, where it presented two performances of
in June. Maffei says she is close to finding a more convenient space
in Lawrenceville, but adds that "it’s too early to make any
The decision to kick things off with two short plays by Lawrenceville
playwright Frederick Olessi was a no-brainer as far as Maffei is
"We wanted to start out by working with a Lawrenceville playwright
and Mr. Olessi was the first person I thought of," says Maffei.
She had a role in the production of Olessi’s play "Guvalade,"
which was performed as a part of Lawrence Township’s Tricentennial
celebrations in 1997.
"I was deeply impressed with Mr. Olessi’s work and with him as
an individual," says Maffei. "So I just went to his home and
asked him if he had any plays he thought would be appropriate for
our theater to do. He gave us four and we chose `Rumi’ and
An added bonus to working on original work is the opportunity to work
directly with the playwright throughout the development and rehearsal
"Mr. Olessi is actively participating in our production,"
points out Maffei. "It’s wonderful. My cast can go to him and
ask questions or he can offer his advice if he feels things have
a little off track. Since the characters in both plays are very deep
people and the way he writes is like poetry, it has been a great
to have him there with us."
Maffei describes the rehearsal process as intensely collaborative.
"Both plays were highly structured when we got them, but we had
to take his words and put them into sentences and meld them with our
interpretation in order to make our characters come alive. Mr. Olessi
was there at every rehearsal, so if our interpretation was something
he hadn’t intended, he was there to offer guidance."
After the run ends, Olessi will be traveling to Rome in November to
continue his work with the Vatican in an ecumenical council for Jewish
and Catholic relations.
Although Lawrenceville Repertory Company’s second production is not
scheduled until the spring, and a decision has not yet been made as
to what play they will do, Maffei will be busy through the winter.
"We’ll be doing a series of short original plays for public access
television. They were so kind in giving us a regular time period that
we can fill," says Maffei.
The company is still a work in progress, and Maffei sees it extending
beyond the limits of theater and becoming something of a haven for
all the arts. "We don’t want to stop at just doing theater. We’d
like to eventually include the exhibitions of drawings and paintings
as well as the performance of original music," says Maffei.
But right now, theater is where Maffei is putting all her energy,
and vows to maintain an open door policy. "We’d really like the
repertory company to be open to everyone," she says. "If you
want to work onstage, on set design, or maybe in costuming or lighting
design, come to us. If playwrights would like to submit their work,
we will take a look. We’re looking for anyone from teens to older
adults eager to work in theater."
Lawrenceville Repertory Company begins its existence with high
and it will be interesting to see how just how much applause and
they will garner from the local community. Although she maintains
that the focus is to remain on presenting new work, Maffei does plan
on occasionally mixing in productions of classic musicals and dramas.
After all, theater is a costly enterprise.
— Jack Florek
Artist’s Showcase Theater, 1150 Indiana Avenue, 609-683-3932. Two
original plays by Frederick Olessi, directed by Leona Maffei. $10.
October 12 and 13, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, October 14 at 2 p.m.
and non-speaking parts, male and female, ages 20 to 50s. Appointments
available every Friday and Saturday in October. Call 609-443-5598.
"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" on Wednesday, October 10,
at 6:30 p.m., in the Communications Building of Mercer County College.
Boys and girls, ages 8 to 15, are needed. Register with Debbie Malmros
at Kelsey Theater, on Saturday, November 3, from noon to 5 p.m.
Jim Azzinaro seeks 10 men and 10 women age 18 and older. To schedule
an appointment call 609-882-9636 .
seeks volunteers at its fall shows. There is no obligation to work
a minimum number of shows or attend meetings. Contact volunteer
Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org
over to exhibit their work in the third annual photography exhibit.
Entries must be received on Saturday, October 13, from 10 a.m. to
noon. The show will be juried by Lawrence H. Parsons, president of
the Princeton Photography Club. Call Deborah Paglione at 609-259-3502.
camp scheduled for the last two weeks of July and the first two weeks
of August, 2002, at Fisherman’s Mark in Lambertville. They are also
seeking a project director and camp counselors. Deadline for resumes
is Thursday, November 1. Call Chris Snyder at 215-340-0354.
package for the fall season. Call 973-593-0189, e-mail: email@example.com,
or website: njtheatrealliance.com
scholarships to high school seniors who plan to major in accounting
in college. The recipients are chosen based on their overall score
on the NJSCPA’s scholarship awards examination scheduled for Saturday
and Sunday, November 17 and 18, at 10 a.m. Application deadline is
Friday, October 26. Call Janice Amatucci at 973-226-4494.
2002 art achievement awards to honor New Jersey students ages 14 to
21 years old, who are classified and in mainstreamed, inclusive, or
self-contained classes. Deadline is Monday, January 14. For
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