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
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
"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)
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"
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
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
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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