This weekend Trenton’s Mill Hill neighborhood will play host to one woman’s adventures in dating, wrapped around the particulars of at-home-dining, sex, and horror movies. The show is Lauren Weedman’s “SRO” (Single Room Occupancy), one of three solo performance pieces Passage will present this year. The others feature May presentations by Trenton born singer Sarah Dash (past member of Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles) and singer-songwriter Christine Lavin.
This extraordinary trio of visiting storytellers is very much in line with Passage’s business of bringing unusual, fresh voices and tales into the city. Since 1985 Passage has prided itself on presenting new work that both reflects and enriches the lives of its audiences.
These three performances are an evolution of sorts of Passage’s Solo Flights Festival, which the theater traditionally presented every March. After 11 successful festivals, producing artistic director June Ballinger wanted something new. “It’s about breaking routine and changing it up,” said Ballinger. “Also, it gives us more regularity in our programming. Instead of folks asking ‘I wonder if anything is playing at Passage this month,’ they might ask ‘I wonder what is playing this month.’”
Ballinger, who was born in Camden but raised in Connecticut, has been a part of Passage for 17 years. She initially came to Trenton to start a local replication of the 52nd Street, a New York-based theater-making initiative. For that project the English-trained theater artist created and produced new plays for and by youth between the ages of nine and 18 who resided in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, near where her father worked as an editor for Better Home and Garden magazine.
As guest artistic director for the project and leader of her own company Word for Word, Ballinger specialized in the creation of works of theater developed through extensive interviews. She also learned the vital skills of budgeting and grant writing. “[It was a] baptism by fire,” she said.
Passage’s incarnation of the 52nd Street Project became the State Street Project, now directed by David Lee White, Passage associate artistic director. A St. Louis, Missouri, native, White joined the company in 2001 after moving from theater work in Chicago. The State Street Project incorporates several programs that interact with Trenton-area youth, including Playmaking, in which young people work with playwrights to create new plays that are then directed and performed by professionals.
“Some of the kids I worked with when they were in grade school are in college now, and we really shared some special projects together,” said White, whose father was a psychologist and mother an English teacher. “The play we created about gang violence, ‘If I Could, In My Hood, I Would . . .,’ has continued to be produced by other theaters and schools, and that’s incredibly gratifying.”
Both Ballinger and White acknowledge the specific challenges of fostering an artistic environment in Trenton. “Trenton’s got a bad rep. You see it on those huge newspaper headlines, you see us being ridiculed on the national news. It’s a challenge,” said White. “Trenton is not nearly as good a city as it should be. But it’s also not nearly as bad as people think it is. It’s somewhere in the middle and every time something modestly wonderful happens or something horribly tragic happens, it momentarily tips over to one side or the other.”
“We operate on a tiny budget and things just get leaner,” said Ballinger. “Trenton is loaded with its own challenges, and they impact us considerably. But I am proud of our adventurous loyal and generous audience. They stick with us and encourage us to keep the faith.”
In the spirit of Passage’s strong roots in Trenton, Passage presented the musical play “Trenton Lights” in summer, 2010, based on a series of conversations with residents of the city. Ballinger and White both cite the production as a highlight of their tenures with Passage. “It grew out of June’s desire to really connect with the community in a way that went beyond the superficial,” said White. “We made friends with some amazing people.”
These friendships and artistic relationships are a renewable resource and source of strength for the theater. “Trenton is kept afloat by a network of people who have unflagging optimism about the good things in this city,” said White. “They aren’t naive. They are well aware of the city’s challenges and absurdities, but they throw themselves into the trenches to dig up the diamonds in the rough.”
And White is happy to list some of these hometown heroes. “Some of them are community activists such as Dan Dodson, Algie Ward, and Jim Carlucci. Some are politicians such as Marge Caldwell Wilson. Some work for nonprofits such as Jaime Parker at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and Christian Martin at the Trenton Downtown Association. And some are local artists such as Tamara and Kell Ramos. It’s impossible to name them all. But they are a force to be reckoned with.”
Passage is enthusiastic about Weedman’s upcoming show. Weedman, who has been featured as a correspondent on “The Daily Show” and in a recurring role on HBO’s Hung, is renowned for her comedic prowess. “She’s one of the best comedic actors I know,” said Ballinger.
White, who is collaborating with Weedman on a future project, echoed this praise. “I read her book years ago and emailed her out of the blue and since then, she’s done three shows at Passage,” said White, noting that her play “Bust” is “the best one-person show I’ve ever seen.” That show recounted Weedman’s experiences volunteering at a women’s prison and receiving the fallout from a 2005 Glamour magazine article she wrote, “I Lied About Being Raped.”
White encourages audiences to see “SRO” for a glimpse at Weedman’s unique talent. “Lauren is completely honest about herself onstage and isn’t afraid for people to judge her about her mistakes and transgressions.”
And finally, White places Weedman on quite a pedestal. “She is, no joke, another Gilda Radner or Lily Tomlin,” said White. “But I’m embarrassed to say that because if she reads this and knows I think it, it will upset the very delicate power dynamic we’ve established working together. I’m kidding, you can print it. No I’m not. Yes I am.”
SRO, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 218 East Hanover Street, Trenton. Through December 16. $22. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.