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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
declares Ballinger. "We’re going to bring Passage to our various
constituents — if I can sound like a politician — and
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
Unlike the State Street Project, which is a program of plays written
by Trenton youngsters, none of the playwrights and directors in
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;
Rose" by Cassandra Medley; and "There" by Herman Farrell.
Admission is by a suggested donation of $5 and reservations are
"Fast Blood" is the unfolding of a shared past of a Kentucky
slave couple and a lynched man that leads to self-discovery,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Michael Goldstein, former CEO of Voxware, and her 9-year old son who,
she says, loves all of this. A second generation?
— Joan Crespi
call 609-392-0766. $5 donation.
Trenton. Saturday, February 7, 3 p.m.
Sunday, February 8, 3 p.m.
Avenue, Trenton. Sunday, February 15, 3 p.m.
Sunday, February 22, 5 p.m.
Sunday, March 1, 3 p.m.
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