During the Off-Broadstreet Theater’s 30th anniversary season, producers Bob and Julie Thick won’t be throwing a party. Not that they don’t like celebrations, but curtain time for their play “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is fixed and, well, the show must go on.
When the doors open at the Hopewell-based theater Bob will be in the box office welcoming guests, and Julie will be escorting them to their tables — the theater is arranged in cafe style (with desserts and coffee as part of the ticket price).
During the show, Bob will work the lights while Julie will serve wherever she’s needed, working back stage or out front helping the wait staff.
The Thicks can’t think of a better way to celebrate. “This is our passion,” says Julie. “It’s what makes us happy.” So the Thicks will be doing what they’ve been doing most weekends over the past three decades, hosting a play they produced from scratch at their dessert theater in Hopewell, the town where they live.
While big productions in mainstream venues can impress audiences with elaborate sets and special effects, Off-Broadstreet’s goal is different, they say. “The aim isn’t to dazzle you with effects, but to inspire you with what the actors are saying and doing,” says Julie.
Following that thought the theater — with 50 tables that seat up to 192 people — is smaller and ambience more personal. The walls are painted pink, and the lobby and staircase are lined with photos of every actor who has ever performed there. “It’s almost like watching a performance from your living room,” says Bob. While watching the play, the audience sits at candle-lit tables, some as close as a few feet from the stage.
“At the Off-Broadstreet Theater, we talk with our audience first hand. We ask for feedback and we listen to what they say,” says Bob. The audience is honest. They tell the Thicks what they do and don’t like. Sometimes audience members will make a suggestion for a new play they’ve seen in another part of the country and will give the Thicks the playwright’s contact number.
Off-Broadstreet is not a community theater but an independently owned production company. It does not receive funding from outside sources, though actors are paid a small compensation on a weekly basis and given a training ground to gain more experience. “Our view is that we support ourselves with the tickets we sell,” Bob says. This gives them the freedom to choose the shows they offer.
Julie says that to get an idea of the company’s core audience — people who want to have a theater experience without going to a major city — put a compass point on Hopewell and draw a circle that encompasses a 45 minute car drive. She says that in addition to patrons from nearby communities “we get a lot from Pennsylvania, the New Brunswick area, and outside the Route One area. We have several groups from Maryland, people who come back to the area and meet friends and family members. There are also groups from Brooklyn.” A group from Temple Beth El has attended every show since the company started.
The company has about 700 season subscribers. While that number is lower than the theater’s earlier days, it has been consistent over the past several years. Julie says that core subscribers are age 50 and above, people “more willing to invest in a series of shows.” Both Thicks say that their biggest challenge is with selling single tickets and “to get people away from their computers to come a show.” To do so, they are looking for shows that are newer and can attract a wide range of audiences, including younger theatergoers.
Bob and Julie met at a fundraising show for Temple Beth El in Somerset. “I was playing the role of Professor Harold Hill in ‘The Music Man.’ I had to dance a soft shoe for the role, and Julie had the unenviable task of teaching me the dance,” he says. They became theater friends and their friendship grew over time. They married on April 14, 1984, the same year they founded Off-Broadstreet Theater.
Bob had been thinking about opening a theater for a while. One Sunday, after a service at Trinity Church in Princeton, he was sharing his vision with a friend. “If only I could find a space to open a theater,” he says. At that moment, someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was George Gallup, who said he had a facility in Hopewell that might fit the bill. “He gave me the keys and said, ‘Go check it out.’” Bob did just that, and soon after Off-Broadstreet Theater was born. The Thicks now own the property.
Over the years they have offered audiences 239 plays, producing each one from start to finish. “We have our own thing that we each work on. It’s great to be able to have a business we both feel passionate about and that draws on both of our backgrounds,” says Julie.
Julie plays a key role in choosing the shows. She reads hundreds of scripts every six months and has read more than 5,000 scripts total. “Choosing the play is one of the more difficult things to do,” she says, adding that their goal is to offer variety and be in sync with the mood of the day. That can be challenging, she says. For a while, people were interested in musical revues. Today people want stories, not just music, she says. To help keep up with the current audience’s preferences, she talks with them and keeps track of which shows sell the most tickets.
Once the play is chosen and the Thicks receive rights from the playwright, they send out a call for talent and begin auditioning. Julie is in charge of choreography and costumes. Bob directs the rehearsals and designs and builds the sets with help from a part-time house manager he calls his “left-hand person.” One of Julie’s favorite tasks is creating the dessert menu. She orders from several bakeries in the Hopewell area and orders fresh fruit from the Pennington Market.
In addition to the regular series, the Thicks keep busy with the children’s shows. Julie picks the shows and Bob performs in them. They use the role model of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s “Fractured Fairy Tales,” the cartoon series from the early 1960s. “Our stories have happy endings,” Bob says. The plays are interactive, and kids are invited to make sound effects.
“The children’s series offers an opportunity for kids to get a taste of what theater is about. Some kids started coming here when they were two years old and continued on until they were 10,” Bob says. Theater owners and producers need to cultivate a young audience because they will become theatergoers when they grow up, he says.
When not working at the theater, both Bob and Julie teach classes. Julie teaches dance, including acro, hip hop, jazz, and tap, in East Brunswick and at Rider University. She studied gymnastics in high school and college and at Wieders, a private club (now closed) in East Brunswick. She studied dance at various studios in the New Jersey-New York area and has a background in Luigi style jazz and has danced with Gregory Hines.
In addition to her creative pursuits, Piscataway-native Julie was an economics major graduating from Douglass. Her mother was an administrator at the Rutgers computer center and her dad was a researcher at Bell Labs.
Bob teaches drama, English literature, and music at SciCore Academy, a private school in Hightstown. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, and has played roles in musical theater and opera, performing in Germany and throughout Europe. His most memorable performance was in Donizetti’s opera “Lucia di Lammermoor.” He grew up in Michigan, where his father was a trumpet player and his parents owned a small movie theater.
When their theater is not being used to host a play, it is available for rent and a few times a year is available for free for a worthy cause. In May they rented the space for a showing of “Sourlands: A New Jersey Treasure,” and in March donated their space for Hopewell Library’s 100th anniversary event.
A three-decade anniversary brings up thoughts about the future of the theater. The Thicks say that they are passionate about what they do, feel lucky to be doing what they love, and have no plans to retire in the foreseeable future. In fact, they are already planning their next round of performances. Of course, they would like to see the theater continue if they do decide to retire. But for now, they are busy producing play and do not anticipate any changes soon.
If you attend Off-Broadstreet’s performance of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” don’t expect an anniversary party. But you can expect to eat cake and other sweets, drink endless cups of coffee, watch a live show, laugh out loud, mingle with old and new friends, maybe rub elbows with stars, and just have fun. Wait a minute, doesn’t that sound like a party? Well, it does, after all, Off-Broadstreet style.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, July 26. Fridays and Saturdays: desserts at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinee, desserts at 1:30 p.m., performance at 2:30 p.m. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.