Corrections or additions?

This article by Deb Cooperman was prepared for the July 21, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Princeton Rep: All the World’s Its Stage

Name a theater company and a building usually comes to mind. McCarter

suggests the building with the tower that underwent one major

renovation in the late 1980s and another major addition completed just

last year. The George Street Playhouse, Crossroads Theater, and the

State Theater all have their own buildings on the same street in New

Brunswick. The State, a once elegant and grand vaudeville house, is

itself undergoing a major physical renovation, to be completed in

September.

But another professional theater has blossomed right here in Princeton

for two decades – and for most of that time it has never had a place

to call home. Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival, a professional

Actors Equity theater, is now celebrating its 20th year in existence,

yet the company has never had a theater to call its own. According to

artistic director and founder Vicki Liberatori, the company has been

"homeless" its entire life. The happy news is that Princeton Rep seems

to have found a home at last.

Staging performances at the outdoor Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater

at Community Park North, the company’s directors are hopeful about the

possibility of a long-term association.

"What most characterized our development has been our inability to

secure a permanent home," says Liberatori. "We feel like a dance

company – always homeless and trying to stay active so your audience

knows who you are. If you don’t have a particular space, you’re

associated with the space you’re renting and you constantly have to

redevelop your audience."

And, oh, the places they’ve performed: outdoors at Palmer Square, in

"George 99" (George Street Playhouse’s "black box" space), the Murray

Theater on the Princeton University campus. "We’ve performed

everywhere you can imagine," Liberatori says. Audiences still talk to

her about the memorable 1985 production of Marsha Norman’s "The

Laundromat" that was produced at the Princeton Shopping Center’s

laundromat.

"We were actually IN the laundromat," says Liberatori. "What we did

was have the two actresses in there washing clothes with the

customers. The place was under different management then, I’m not sure

how it’s laid out now, but it had floor to ceiling windows and we had

the audience set up on bleachers outside and the actresses were miked

inside. We’ve performed everywhere we can."

Even the most recent association with Pettoranello Gardens was not

without its own dramatic moments. Princeton Rep first landed there in

2000, and it surprised everyone by attracting an audience of 12,000

during its run at the 350-seat amphitheater. But the crowds were a

cause of concern to the Princeton Recreation Department, which felt

that improvements were needed to continue using the venue as a

theater. In 2001, at the last minute, the improvements were not

complete and the season had to be canceled. Princeton Rep managed to

produce some excerpts of plays at the green on Palmer Square. By 2002

the amphitheater was finally completed.

Through it all, Liberatori and company stuck to their mission of

bringing Shakespeare plays to the people for free, and setting the

plays in the context of modern times – everything from the wild west

for "As You Like It" to Miami Beach for "The Comedy of Errors" and the

Princeton Junction train station for the slightly renamed "Merry Wives

of (West) Windsor."

Born in Trenton, and raised "in the suburbs of Princeton" with parents

who were "direct opposites – the perfect example of opposites

attracting," Liberatori grew up with her mother, a visual artist, who

was "very supportive" of her interest in the arts, and her father, a

law enforcement officer in Trenton, who was "not as supportive."

An English and film major at Douglass College, Liberatori started her

career "traveling all over the country" as a staging director for

industrial and training films. After the death of her mother, she had

a change of heart in her career direction.

"Betty Fenton and I had been friends while at Douglass. We were both

English majors, and she was very active in the theater, but it wasn’t

until we’d both graduated that we decided to put it (Princeton Rep)

together."

The company got its start in 1984 when Ann Reeves, of the Princeton

Arts Council, gave the company free space. The first production was

"An Evening of Three One Acts" by Lanford Wilson, Robert Patrick, and

Myrna Lamband. "Ann encouraged us to get going," says Liberatori.

After three years, Fenton and Liberatori had a parting of the ways.

"We weren’t on the same page," says Liberatori, "we had different

agendas about how quickly we would develop – how many plays we’d

produce each season. It was an amicable split. Betty was wonderful –

very key in the development of the company." (Fenton, now Betty

Curtiss, has since become an accomplished painter.)

For its first 10 years, the company produced a variety of works –

primarily new plays – and was known as Princeton Rep, but "around 1994

our mission really changed and we had a total reorganization of our

board," says Liberatori. Instrumental in the change was the addition

of executive producer Anne Reiss.

Reiss studied at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England,

and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and began her

career in New York as a fundraiser for Willem Dafoe’s Wooster Group

theater company. When she met Liberatori, she was producing shows with

her twin sister.

"Someone recommended Vicki as a director," says Reiss, "and we hired

her. Later she invited us to do some work at Princeton Rep." At the

same time, David Newton of Palmer Square was looking for programming,

so, ever the chameleons, Princeton Rep staged its first Princeton Rep

Shakespeare in the Square in 1995. After that, the company began

focusing on producing Shakespeare "with an attitude for our times"

exclusively.

Yet, with all of its adaptability and ingenuity, the strength and

determination of its directors, and with years of successful

operation, the company has been unable to secure a permanent space to

produce their work.

That’s why the group is hopeful about the association with the

Princeton Recreation Department and the Pettoranello Foundation.

"Before the Pettoranello Foundation got involved the park was in

pretty rough condition. They really committed themselves to reclaiming

the park. They fixed up the whole site. They did a tremendous job. But

no one was using the space (the amphitheater). It was completely

underutilized. They played a key role in bringing us there. And at our

suggestion they’ve upgraded the power service and we’ve upgraded the

performing arts infrastructure; the space is on the map again as an

arts venue."

This season, the outdoor venue has caused more than a few problems for

the company’s opening production, "Romeo and Juliet." First there were

the cicadas. And then it was unseasonably cold. And raining. "But we

play rain or shine. If it becomes a safety issue, we stop, but we

still perform in light drizzle. It’s really challenging to produce in

an outdoor venue," says Liberatori. "We lost almost 50 percent of our

shows with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ because of the weather."

And it’s not just the weather that Princeton Rep has to contend with.

"We have no running water," says Reiss of the park venue. "We’re

working with the recreation department to make improvements for the

comfort of our actors and audience. The running water is key in

Shakespeare’s tragedies – actors are full of blood in their scenes and

we have to find a way to clean them up for the curtain call. We

operate almost like a movie set, with trailers and caterers and

portable toilets."

In spite of the challenges, Princeton Rep is very happy with the

space. Says Reiss: "The location is ideal. People can walk, and we

also provide shuttles (the pick-up point is at Thomas Sweets Chocolate

store on Palmer Square) and we have a parking lot for our ‘Bard Card’

members (paid subscribers) right across the street that Fleet Bank

provided. We have 350 seats in the theater, and we still draw more

people than we have seats." The overflow audience often bring blankets

and picnics to sit on the hill where they watch Shakespeare under the

stars. Or clouds.

This month, in drizzle or on a clear night, the company performs its

second production, Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Liberatori,

from Thursday, July 22, through Sunday, August 8. All shows are free.

As one of only seven professional, free, outdoor Shakespeare festivals

in the country, Princeton Rep is well supported by contributions from

the community including Fleet Bank, the Times of Trenton, Triumph

Brewing Company, and Palmer Square.

"They make it possible for us to produce theater and make it free,"

says Liberatori. While the shows are free, the company does ask for a

$10 donation. Still, no one is turned away for lack of funds, as it

was in the Bard’s time.

The hardworking Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival hopes that it will

be able to celebrate its 25th anniversary in the same place where it

celebrated its 20th. "It went by so quickly," says Reiss, "but we felt

every moment of it!"


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