For the avid theatergoer, it doesn’t take much to get enthused at the start of each new theater season. The prospects of seeing a favorite performer is always an incentive. Mary Beth Peil, known to television audiences as Evelyn Ryan on “Dawson’s Creek,” has the leading role in “The Things You Least Expect,” which opens George Street Playhouse’s 2006-’07 season. Later in George Street’s season Jack Klugman, best known for playing Oscar in the long-run TV series “The Odd Couple,” stars in Jeffrey Sweet’s “The Value of Names.”

Some people are eager to discover a new play. Anticipation runs high for Emily Mann’s latest play, “Mrs. Packard,” having its world premiere as the closing play in McCarter Theater’s new season. The advance word is particularly good for D.W. Gregory’s “October 1962,” a world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Theater, as well as for Robert Clyman’s comedy “Where the Sun Never Sets,” another world premiere at Playwrights Theater.

There are also those who love seeing a new interpretation of an old classic. Bonnie J. Monte has written and will direct her own adaptation of the Jane Austen novel “Pride and Prejudice,” which premieres at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey on Tuesday, October 17.

For others to get motivated, though, it takes a little push.

At the major professional regional theaters, the public relations, marketing, and group sales directors are expected to be as imaginatively creative and productive as are the artistic directors. This mostly unheralded group, part of the back-of-the-house theatrical think tank, must increasingly conjure up ways to fill up the seats. They must come up with new and better ways to spark the interest of special interest groups as well as the general public in more than just the purchase of tickets to an individual show.

Packages and programs designed to appeal to specific interests and special needs groups have not only become increasingly popular but serve as the social backbone of regional theater. Virtually all the theaters are making a concerted effort to attract school groups and promote family matinees. Given the popularity of the various programs that encourage attendance by the physically impaired, senior citizens, singles, gays and lesbians, theaters are now exploring more ways to reach a broader and even more select audience. Like prospectors looking for gold, theaters are attempting to look for the yet untapped audience. You are encouraged to go to the various websites of the theaters (see listings at end) to see what programs may be of interest to you.

Passage Theater

Passage Theater gets encouraging response to its “community partnership” sales. Local organizations, such as Leadership Trenton, Stark & Stark, the Old Mill Hill Society, and many of the major churches in Trenton (especially those that serve primarily African-Americans), introduce new people to the theater who might not otherwise come on their own.

Public relations director Allison Trimarco says,“For many people, an evening at the theater is just not the first thing they think of when they are making plans. It is not a habit. It is often more expensive than a movie and often in an unfamiliar location that requires some planning. Special events and group deals bring the idea of attending a play into people’s minds, and make it easy for them to decide to attend. They know there will be a comfortable social atmosphere for them, since they’re attending as a group.”

This season Passage will continue its successful (now in its third year) partnership with the Trenton Gay & Lesbian Civic Association, with a pre-show reception prior to the first Thursday of each production (subject to change). Passage kicks off its new season on Thursday, October 5, with the world premiere of Seret Scott’s “Second Line,” about two middle class African-American college students whose deep love for each other was forged during the stormy events of the 1960s.

George Street Playhouse

Women are being targeted (although men are also invited) says Michelle Bergamo, the marketing and group sales associate at George Street Playhouse. Under the umbrella title “Cure for Stress” this program has been designed as a means “to relax, connect with friends, unwind, and enjoy theater as part of a day, evening, or weekend package.” The purchaser may choose from four different packages, each offering a slightly different activity and price, including a ticket to either “The Things You Least Expect” by Joan Vail Thorne (October 3 through 29) or “Souvenir” by Stephen Temperley (February 27 through March 25, 2007).

“We all live busy lives, and we wanted to promote the idea of taking some time to relax,” says Bergamo. “Going to the theater with your friends is a great way to unwind, and we wanted to push the envelope even further by offering spa treatments, dinners, yoga, and hotel stays to go along with the theater experience. The best part about these unique offerings is that our patrons can reserve the whole package with one phone call. I take care of working out the details with our fantastic business partners.”

One of the more interesting programs is called Diva’s Deluxe Retreat. It is offered Tuesday through Sunday: the $250/person price (based on double occupancy) includes express check-in for overnight accommodations at the East Brunswick Hilton; round trip shuttle service from the hotel to Boca Salon and Spa for a choice of facial, massage, or manicure and pedicure; shuttle service to downtown New Brunswick; dinner at Soho on George; a ticket to the evening performance; and breakfast at the Hilton the following morning.

If yoga’s your cup of tea, you might look at the program called Zen Friends, in which your day starts with a yoga session at Yoga Vayu followed by goodies at Port City Java and a ticket to the matinee. Good for Thursday and Saturday matinees, the price is $65/person for Thursdays, $80/ person for Sundays. For more information about these and other packages, call Michelle Bergamo at 732-846-2859, extension 134, E-mail mbergamo@georgestplayhouse.org, or visit the “Group Packages” section at www.GSPonline.org.

McCarter Theater

Many theaters now offer special services for patrons who have visual and audio impairments. At McCarter, both American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation and audio description are offered on the final Sunday afternoon matinee of each theater series production. There is no additional charge for these services. Each ASL interpreted performance is preceded by a brief introduction given by professional interpreters. The theater suggests that you indicate at the time of your ticket purchase that you or members of your party will be using this service, so that they may ensure optimal seating locations for viewing both the interpreters and the stage. A schedule of the ASL interpreted and audio described performances for the 2006-’07 season can be found at www.mccarter.org.

McCarter also hosts an After Hours Party on one Friday during the run of each show for those who like to mix and mingle with the cast and crew. The event includes live music and catering from the area’s top restaurants. A pre-show program, Pride Night, welcomes gay and lesbian (and gay-friendly) audiences on one Thursday during the run and features food and drink beginning at 6 p.m. There is also a pay-what-you-can-performance. The McCarter season is already underway with previews of Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party;” opening night is Friday, September 15.

Bristol Riverside

At the Bristol Riverside Theater, a pay-what-you-can performance has also been instituted for preview performances as part of its 20th anniversary season celebration. These tickets will be released 30 minutes before show time and are available to walk-up customers, on a first come-first served basis and based on availability. Those who pay for opening night seats ($37 for plays; $42 for musicals) are invited to a post-show buffet and reception with cast and creative team.

Other special performance series at the Bristol for each of the five regular season shows include the popular “Friday Festival” series — the second week of each production offering complimentary wine, hors d’oeuvres, and dessert with a guest speaker prior to the performance providing background information about the show. The third week of the run will again host the “Wine Down Wednesday” series ($34 plays; $39 musicals), that includes a pre-show hors d’oeuvres hour with complimentary wine, crudites and desserts. The season begins on Thursday, September 28, with Mark Brown’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” based on Jules Verne’s classic novel.

Paper Mill Playhouse

The Paper Mill Playhouse gets points for including a special touch to its programs for the blind and visually-impaired. This includes a pre-show “Sensory Seminar” featuring tactile touch tours of the set for each show and a chance to touch key costumes and props used in the course of the play. The program’s administrator at Paper Mill (and himself an experienced describer) has teamed with McCarter Theater’s Janet Dickson to train new audio-describers state-wide.

Paper Mill is carrying the policy of giving students discounts to a new level with a club called FanaTIX. Student members receive tickets to mainstage productions for only $16.25. New members can join by sending an E-mail to FanaTIX@papermill.org with your name, mailing address, school, and date of birth. Paper Mill Playhouse press agent Shayne Miller is particularly enthusiastic about the “MySpace” page to attract the younger crowd: www.myspace.com/papermillplayhouse. The theater has also instituted the Paper Mill Book Club. For more information on student programs visit www.papermill.org/stage/onschooltime.php.

Paper Mill’s season of six shows opens on Wednesday, September 20, with the popular musical “Godspell.”

Crossroads Theater

Crossroads Theater Company is making a valiant effort to return to its former glory as one of the country’s preeminent multicultural theaters. As it did successfully last year for “Yo Soy Latina,” Crossroads will reach out to public and private schools with school matinees of “Curry Tales,” its third and last show of the season, a 90-minute work in which writer and performer Rani Moorthy takes a worldwide tour of making curry.

Crossroad’s season begins on Friday, November 3, with “One Mo’ Time,” a musical that replicates a swinging New Orleans vaudeville, circa 1926. It was first performed at Crossroads in 1985.

Shakespeare Theater

of New Jersey

It’s mid-season at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey where “Richard III” is playing through Sunday, October 8. On Wednesday, September 27, a pre-performance half-hour program, “Know the Show,” is a talk by director Vivienne Benesch that includes background and an expert’s perspective. The cost is $5 in addition to the price of a ticket. Post-play discussions with the cast and artistic staff are a regular feature as are the pay-what-you-wish performances.

In its 19th year, the Shakespeare Colloquium continues to be a popular addition to the season. This year’s subject is none other than that maniacal tyrant, Richard III. It will take place over the weekend of Saturday and Sunday, September 30 and October 1, and will include, among other Shakespearean scholars, Majorie Garber of Harvard University and author of “Shakespeare After All” (Pantheon, 2004). Colloquium weekend registration is $90 general admission, $75 for subscribers, $65 for senior citizens and $50 for students. For additional information or to register for the colloquium, call 973-408 -3930 or E-mail JBGrant@ShakespeareNJ.org.

As you can see, whether you are married or single, straight or gay, social or shy, male or female, young or old, there is a party or a program for just about everyone at a theater near you this season.

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