Passage Theater Company is starting the year with something new onstage and off.
On stage for the Trenton nonprofit professional theater is playwright EM Lewis’ “The Gun Show.” It starts a two-week run on Thursday, January 22.
Artistic director June Ballinger calls the hour-long production with conversation a play that attempts to create a thoughtful dialogue about guns, rather than a “Right and Left” shouting match.
Lewis, a 2010 Hodder fellow at Princeton University, has created nine plays and is the winner of several awards, including the Primus Prize from the American Theater Critics Association. Passage Theater presented her play “True Story” in 2013.
“The Gun Show” is directed by Damon Bonetti, artistic director of Philadelphia Artists’ Collective and frequent Passage Theater collaborator. The production features Lawrenceville-based professional actor and Rider University professor of acting Trent Blanton.
The offstage “new” includes office space at 5 South Broad Street and the arrival of Damion Parran, the company’s freshly appointed managing director.
On a recent morning, Parran sits on the second-floor office space shared by the College of New Jersey’s Bonner Center and talks about theater and coming to Trenton, a path opened by a colleague who knew artistic director Ballinger.
“I grew up in Southeast Washington, D.C., which is east of the river and known for its low income and violence-ridden community, and from a single mom,” says Parran, 38. “I went to the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, where I received my high school diploma. From there I moved to California to attend California Institute for the Arts (Cal Arts) and received my bachelor of fine arts in 1999.”
He continues describing his personal situation. “My mom did a lot of things. For the most part she did whatever job she was able to do in order to be home. She did cafeteria work and was a beautician. I’m the oldest of the three. So I was the sort of the man of the house, helping my mother was well as I could, taking care of my brothers and picking up odd jobs to help support my family.”
Then he met the arts. “I have been interested in the arts since I was a little boy. I started out wanting to draw and then moved into wanting to be a singer. In junior high I joined the drama club. I really enjoyed it. I had a choice to make.” He had to choose a course of study.
He said that with his grades he had the opportunity to move onto schools that built on a student’s interest and could have focused on architecture, business, or art at Duke Ellington High School.
Arts study is often equated as impractical, but “my mother was very supportive. My mother took me to each of the interviews. Because Duke Ellington was the furthest away from Southeast Washington, she knew that I would receive a better education the further northwest from the city. When I got accepted she was over the moon because it got me out. Some (students) I knew stayed; some did well, and some were lost to drugs and violence.”
Parran illustrates the point by recounting a story about a fellow student with whom he appeared in a school play. “A young man I had just walked across the stage with was killed at a crack house. He grew up in a single family home, just as I did. His mother tried, but he found his way into the dark side and was killed. I wanted more. I think it was because of my mom that there were other avenues and experiences. That was really important. I tell my niece and nephew to be comfortable to leave your community if it means getting the proper education and experience and meeting people from diverse backgrounds. That’s the only way you can come back and make a difference.”
Parran left his neighborhood for Cal Arts, but not without resistance. “My mother wasn’t excited and said no. I begged her and told her I was going to be a star. It was the furthest that anyone in my immediate family had traveled, and I was the first to go to college. She came around, and after a while she was very supportive.”
Parran says that he stayed in Los Angeles for 14 years. “I ended my time managing Watts Theater, developing social relative theater specific to the Watts community — one that was moving from African American to Latino. Looking at plays to show how the communities crossed was part of my mission.”
In 2009 Parran took advantage of the opportunity to return to Washington and participate in the Kennedy Center Fellowship Program. Although it provided a positive experience, he left unprepared for what was to follow: the economic downturn that crippled the nation. “After a number of months I was hired by the Boys and Girls Club of Washington to develop arts education programs. I was managing the entire set of clubs. I worked with arts institutions to bring in arts programming, managed a summer camp, and taught kids theater. The organization did not have the resources to have the ongoing teacher or artists at every club. I did that for three years.”
Then in 2014 he received a tip that Trenton needed someone with experience in working in theater in an urban area. The process started in July and ended in August. “I first met on the phone with two board members. Then I had a conversation with June. Then I was invited to visit by the end of July. It wasn’t a long process but was very involved,” he says.
Recalling the topics of discussion he says, “A lot of the focus was on fundraising, bringing more donors to the table. (The board members) were very interested in maintaining the donor relationships that we have and gaining more corporate support. They asked me my ideas on that. With corporations I knew that a lot of them were not funding the way that they had. I realized that we could not send a proposal to a corporation without a personal relationship.
“One of the ways to get them involved is to invite corporate people on the board. They would know and advocate on our behalf. Going out and talking to the folks, and meeting with people and inviting them to our shows, also providing corporations with donor packages tailored to their missions. We give them a package with the various programs that are specific to their mission. Let them know how much it costs to program.” One example he uses is transportation: schools need to expose students to events outside the schools but do not have the funds for bus transportation.
He then spent a good deal of time talking with Ballinger. “(We) had a great deal of conversation about production, producing theater, and working with artists. We talked about scheduling, developing budgets, and working with Actors’ Equity. We did a lot of talking about the arts and producing and focused on (the questions): Would this be a good working relationship? Would she have the support managerially with the producing side?”
What made Parran suited for the role were two attributes. First, he says, “I love new work. I was trained in developing new work. That was a shared interest. All of the work I did involved union and nonunion actors — having that background was great. We both have a passion for seeing work developed, created, and performed, and for working with artists and seeing the art-making process as an opportunity to support individuals.”
Then there is the work outside the theater. “I wanted to see more communities (involved), go to the churches and social service agencies, and bring people to the community to make theater more than just a theater and create the community’s theater. We want to bring more young people into theater. It belongs to them.”
Talking both theoretically and from experience, he says, “It’s not so much about being an actor. All the work that goes into a play involves different aspects — lighting designer, scenic designer, director, and so on. All those positions can inspire young people do go into those fields or have skills that can translate into other fields. It is an opportunity to train our young people. Look to find those opportunities by being on time and accomplishing something.”
Yet that is in the future. Right now Parran is getting situated in Trenton and learning. “When I first started we were going into production of ‘Little Rock,’ so there was not enough time to get comfortable and observe. Now I feel like I’m more comfortable and have a better sense and understanding of what the community looks like.”
A resident of Trenton’s Mill Hill district (he found his apartment through the Mill Hill Society network), he says, “I’m single. I haven’t found a community to be part of. Trenton is different from other cities where every community has a name. Where this is the Latino community? The African American or the gay community? This is one of the challenges that I want to explore more. Where are the communities?”
He shares other observations about Trenton. “It’s a lot smaller (than other cities), but things are spread out. If you want to get out to restaurant community, you have to know where to go. I’m used to hoping on a metro and getting to a target. Business is different here.”
Then there is the audience. “This city becomes very dead at 4:30 p.m. It’s definitely a government town. A great deal of Passage’s audiences comes from the surrounding community: Princeton, Hamilton, and Lambertville. But what was successful this season is that we saw more Trenton people come out. We were able to get the churches and the service organizations out to see it. There was this bridge of various racial and social backgrounds in the theater sitting there. There is a community in Trenton that is interested in theater.”
Thinking aloud, Parran reflects on the success of productions like “Little Rock,” and their appeal to audiences of African ancestry, and says, “Is it just Black theater? Once we have their attention it is our job to keep them interested whether it is a black play or not. I’ve heard since I’ve been here why not make Passage like Crossroads (the Tony Award-winning Black theater company in New Brunswick). I think that the folks who founded this organization feel that it doesn’t serve the community to make Passage a Black company. It is important to tell the diverse stories of Trenton, to tell of the humanity and inspire understanding.”
The Gun Show, Passage Theater, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Opening Thursday, January 22, and continuing Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 andSundays at 3 p.m., until Sunday, February 8. $20 to $30. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.