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Passage Theater’s New Turn

This article by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

February 4, 1998. All rights reserved.

Passage Theater has a new artistic director, June

Ballinger. She is also its producer, script reader, grant writer,

outreach program creator (the State Street Project), and otherwise

one-human band. Ballinger launches the new Passage with readings of

five new plays under the banner, "Winterfest." She is taking

these five readings out into four sites in Trenton neighborhoods where

she hopes to show audiences that theater is not just an elitist, artsy

event, but something that can involve and speak to them personally.

We caught up with the busy and weary Ballinger late one night and

spoke to her by telephone the following morning, pulling her away

from her grant proposal writing.

"Part of our objective in moving into the neighborhoods, when

we cannot use Mill Hill Playhouse, is to `bring the mountain to

Mohammed,’"

declares Ballinger. "We’re going to bring Passage to our various

constituents — if I can sound like a politician — and

introduce

them to Passage on their own turf." Har Sinai Temple, which hosts

two of the readings, has a deep commitment to revitalizing the culture

of Trenton, she notes, and Mill Hill Playhouse is the company’s recent

home.

Unlike the State Street Project, which is a program of plays written

by Trenton youngsters, none of the playwrights and directors in

Winterfest

are from Trenton (although the actors may be), and all involve adults.

"Winterfest" opens at the New Jersey State Museum Auditorium,

Saturday, February 7, at 3 p.m., with "Fast Blood" by Judy

Tate. Following in the festival are: "Sons of Don Juan" by

John PiRoman; "The Second Generation" by Joshua Metzger;

"Ma

Rose" by Cassandra Medley; and "There" by Herman Farrell.

Admission is by a suggested donation of $5 and reservations are

requested.

"Fast Blood" is the unfolding of a shared past of a Kentucky

slave couple and a lynched man that leads to self-discovery,

forgiveness,

and enlightenment. The play has had other readings. Ballinger knew

Tate in New York, and was so taken with "Fast Blood" that

she has long wanted to do a reading of it here. Tate, who has worked

with Crossroads Theater, is from New Jersey. The play’s director is

Charles Dumas who also lived in the area, used to be involved with

McCarter, and now lives in College Park, Pennsylvania, and teaches

at Penn State.

"Sons of Don Juan" is by a Cuban playwright. The play, with

classic Spanish love songs, takes place in El Paso Doble restaurant,

a real place in Union, New Jersey. It’s a Latino restaurant and night

club, but on weekends there are singers. (So all the actors have to

have good voices, notes Ballinger.) The play has had a professional

production, but not in the New York area. Both PiRoman, who has

written

for TV and film (he did the screen play for the forthcoming "How

the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents") and has written several

stage plays, and Megs Booker, the director, who was artistic director

at the Asolo Theater in Sarasota, Florida, live in California.

"The Second Generation," a religious play, is about a young

Orthodox rabbi who questions his long-held beliefs and practices.

This is a first play by Metzger, a lawyer by profession. Since the

play was workshopped at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights’ Conference,

Metzger has done a lot of rewriting. Julie Boyd, an actor and

director,

who’s been at the O’Neill for 17 years, and is, says Ballinger, an

expert at working with developing playwrights, will be coming down

from New York to direct. Following this play, Ballinger will lead

a discussion between the audience and playwright. (Other plays will

also be followed by discussions.)

Ma Rose," which deals with matriarchy, senility,

conflicting wills, and childhood secrets tells the story of three

generations of black American women "in a specific, funny, moving,

and refreshingly non-doctrinaire way," says the New York Times.

"There" is the story of a bi-racial young man’s growing sense

of isolation as he searches for his culture and heritage while

struggling

with the double scourge of racism from both white and black.

All the plays are in different stages of completion. And while four

of the plays are serious, "Sons of Don Juan" is the only

comedy.

And the only play with music. Ballinger chose the directors for each

play, and the directors, in turn, selected their actor-readers. Many

plays have five or more characters.

Ballinger hopes the playwrights will get feedback from the audiences

and, if they choose, do further work on their plays. It benefits a

playwright to have work read by professional actors and, maybe, to

hear things that he or she didn’t know were there, she observes. And

Ballinger wants to hear the plays herself, to test out her instincts

and see if she’s on the same wave length as local audiences. She hopes

to draw an audience from throughout Trenton, Princeton, Yardley, and

Morrisville.

Ballinger found these plays through networking. Established as an

actress and theater activist in New York, she has long been connected

with theaters committed to developing new playwrights.

"A lot of it is just 20 years of associations and knowing where

to go and who to talk to," she says. For a short time, as part

of a New York theater company, she served as a literary manager, and

for a couple of years she worked with the Actors’ Theater of

Louisville,

a theater committed to new plays. She’s also acted in "There"

when it was performed in workshop. When Ballinger became artistic

director at Passage, many of her theater connections offered to help

her.

She has been working on putting Winterfest together since October.

While some of the five plays — "There," "Ma Rose,"

"The Second Generation" — Ballinger already knew, and

have had full productions elsewhere, "Sons of Don Juan" came

in just two weeks before she made her final schedule. And the

selection

of "Fast Blood" was seconded by Georgine Hall, an actress

living in Princeton, who volunteered to help Ballinger read scripts,

and who loved the play. Three of the plays — "Sons of Don

Juan," "The Second Generation," and "There" —

come from the O’Neill festival, which Ballinger attends every summer.

"The objective of the readings is not to be moving around and

be busy with physical action, as in a full, finished production, but

to be truthful and explore what’s in the text," says Ballinger.

"One of the best times to see a play is as an almost cold reading.

Magic can happen in these readings."

The plays’ characters are whites, blacks, Cubans, and Jews but

Ballinger

says their conflicts and epiphanies are common to all people. Passage

is committed to plays "that transcend the single issue — a

color or class or culture," she says.

"Though `Ma Rose’ is about three generations of black women, with

a high and mighty executive daughter who’s a world traveler, I was

so moved by it," Ballinger declares. "Their story is my story.

I recognized myself and my family experience in that, even through

I come from a middle class white family. But it deals with themes

that I think are relative to all of us because they’re based in the

humanity of the character.

"I would say the same thing about `The Second Generation’ because

even though it’s about a young rabbi’s religious dilemma, and I’m

not Jewish, I can relate very much to it," she continues. "It

touched that nerve center in me which had that universal quality."

She hopes that people will recognize themselves in the

characters onstage, whatever their color or ethnic background.

"That’s

one of the reasons I’m in this business," says Ballinger, "and

it’s an obvious reason behind this eclectic selection of plays."

"I like to think that arts — all arts, not just theater —

can heal, can foster understanding among people. It’s the motivating

reason behind what makes me respond to a play, what made me take this

job," she says. While she might call herself a "romantic"

for thinking that arts can heal, her practical side declares that

all the play reading sites in Trenton provide secure parking.

Ballinger is a woman of many talents. A New York actress who’s taken

a "sabbatical" from her own stage performing and put her own

career on a back burner to focus on Passage — although she does

occasional readings and TV — she lives in Princeton with her

husband,

Michael Goldstein, former CEO of Voxware, and her 9-year old son who,

she says, loves all of this. A second generation?

— Joan Crespi

Passage Theater Company, Winterfest. For

reservations

call 609-392-0766. $5 donation.

Fast Blood, State Museum Auditorium, West State Street,

Trenton. Saturday, February 7, 3 p.m.

Sons of Don Juan, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front Street,

Trenton.

Sunday, February 8, 3 p.m.

The Second Generation, Har Sinai Temple, 491 Bellevue

Avenue, Trenton. Sunday, February 15, 3 p.m.

Ma Rose, Shiloh Baptist Church, 340 Calhoun Street,

Trenton.

Sunday, February 22, 5 p.m.

There, Shiloh Baptist Church, 340 Calhoun Street, Trenton.

Sunday, March 1, 3 p.m.


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