For those who wan tto go back to learning this year, but don’t want to go to school, a new community project may address that need, including doing something that most people fear: speaking in public.

Rock Salt Theater is the new project that has theater in its name and a love of communicating before others in its soul. Created by Kathi Paluscio, Mercer County Community College instructor of public speaking, the new company is presenting shows on selected Fridays in August, September, and October in the lobby of the Mercer County Park ice skating arena (see listing below). New participants are welcome — the ongoing audition process lists bravery as one of the main requirements.

Bravery is not surprising since most experts agree that public speaking is one of the most frightening human endeavors. One Gallup Poll showed that more people were more afraid of speaking in public (42 percent) than dying (28 percent). In another study, the fear of talking in public was listed higher than meeting a date’s parents, first day on a new job, or a job interview.

And while Rock Salt Theater Company downplays this connection for auditions, its classes for students emphasizes “skill building in the management of communication anxiety and stage fright.”

Rock Salt Theater’s name connects to rock salt as in melting ice (or fear) as well as its venue: the Mercer County Ice Skating Rink in Mercer County Park in West Windsor.

That unconventional site meshes with Paluscio’s goal of creating a theater that was different, part of a plan that she started developing four years ago and connects to her undergraduate theater training and academic career as an instructor of public speaking.

Paluscio says that her vision for the company was shaped by a disappointment and a love. The disappointment was with the way the “theater world” treated aspiring actors whose aspirations were often thwarted; the love was from her work in public speaking and working with reticent speech students.

To help students, she developed an exercise that focused on using a vocal variety to show a range of expression. Suddenly students who believed that they lacked the ability to entertain were suddenly finding that they could grab and hold an audience’s attention. “The student would then say, ‘I am not an actor and look what I could do,’” the instructor-turned-impresario says. “All you have to do is to be brave and take risks. If you do it with confidence you are engaging.”

From the experience in the classroom, Paluscio started a comedy troupe, which in turn got her thinking more about what could be done to help both those interested in overcoming the anxiety of public speaking and those disappointed in traditional theater. The result is this enterprise that emphasizes comedy and family fare.

On the Rock Salt Theater Company blog, Paluscio shares her thoughts on her enterprise, in what can be called her manifesto, titled “The Back Story of Why I Hate the Theater and Why I Want to Change It.”Paluscio writes, “Over the past 10 years, I have watched every person I knew in theater try to open one of his or her own and fail at it. Not a few. All. They all failed. I never really understood why no one was making it.”

She then offers her own thoughts, focusing mainly on the cost of buying a ticket, expenses related to going to the theater (transportation, parking, meals), and costs related to training. “The word ‘theater’ has almost become synonymous with the idea of being ‘out of reach,’” she writes. “Going to live theater feels like giving a kidney would be less painful. It’s simple, ticket prices for live theater go up and up, and more folks choose Netflix. Simple as that.”

Using the vocal exercise as the foundation for creativity and the plan to make theater affordable, Paluscio’s approach is to encourage risk. “Taking risks with one another and doing silly things with your voice is the way we create a character. You need to be very brave. And once you do it and succeed, it is very addictive.”

Those addicted to the challenge of creativity and self-expression are also something the director wants, a community of people who want to share and work as a team. “Instead of going home and watching television, we have a way of being with people, experimenting, and producing something. It’s a team thing.”

The people who make up the team are generally in their late 20s to mid 30s. They are, she said, actors who are finished with college and school. “These are people are working fulltime, and this becomes their entertainment outlet.” Day jobs include dental hygienists, Best Buy sales rep, an ad salesperson, and an EMT, among others.

One face connected to the effort is New-York-native-turned Plainsboro resident Laura Manfredi who met Paluscio through taking classes at Mercer. Manfredi explains that she was an advertising executive until the Great Recession struck and her career was interrupted. After her decision to return to school part-time at MCCC and taking a class in public speaking, her life seems to have a new focus after learning about Rock Salt. It’s a focus that puts her 30 years of experience as a sometime electric bass player to good use, but still offers a challenge.

“I’m a musician; a bass player. Bass players tend to stand towards the back of the stage and their job is to keep the band in time by laying down the rhythm while looking cool. Not much interaction with an audience and just head nodding with cues with my drummer.” But now she’s front and center and interacting in skits where she speaks and plays the music in a piece that she created with Paluscio.

In addition to learning confidence and how to take risks, Paluscio said that there is another thing that all participants learn and that is how to organize theater. “None of them are theater people, but they find it interesting in learning how to create costumes.” And that learning component is a fixed part of the theater. So much so that the theater’s audition information states that cast members are expected to help with all aspects of the theater, including set up and striking, building sets, and costumes, locating or building, and marketing. A note simply states that “Divas need not apply.”

As for compensation, bring your own: “You must simply love to do it for the sake of doing it,” says Paluscio. “If you need a social life, if you want to smile every day, if you want to be discovered, if you want to hone your comedy/improv skills, and if people are always telling you you’re nuts — then this just might be the audition for you.”

— Dan Aubrey

Rock Salt Theater, shows on Fridays, August 17 and 24; and September 7, 14, and 21 at 8 p.m. Halloween show Fridays, October 5, 12, 19, 26 at 8 p.m.; Sundays, October 21 and 28, at 8 p.m. and two shows on Wednesday, October 31, at 6:30 and 9 p.m. Tickets are cash only and sold at the door the night of the performance. Admission is $10 ($9 for seniors), and is recommended for ages 13 and up.

Performances take place at the Mercer County Park Ice Skating Arena Lobby in West Windsor. For more information, visit www.rocksalttheatre.com.

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