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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 18, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
What is the role of the theater community in a time
of crisis? This was the question posed by the New Jersey Theater Alliance
to various theater artists and professionals at a symposium —
"Theater: A Catalyst for Transformation in Times of Crisis"
— held at Crossroads Theater on January 28, 2002. Although much
of what was said in response to the tragedy of September 11 was deemed
"insightful commentary," there was an attempt to see the theater’s
current role in society as a targeted mission rather than as an unrestricted
and unencumbered arena for the creative spirit.
Transformation in the theater is a given as long as the theater is
allowed to remain free of directives and mandates, free from the confines
of the immediate and the finite; and mainly free to reveal the improbable,
the fantastical, the infinite, and the true. We go to the theater
to be transported by the classics of the past and the best plays of
the present. So let’s go.
That means it is a time to go to the theater and possibly take some
risks. New Jersey theaters are doing just that. Based on facts and
figures supplied by NJTA, we have no reason to doubt that New Jersey’s
professional regional theaters are entering the new season with more
hope and a sense of stability than was the case a year ago. Sweating
a little less, the various artistic and executive directors all seem
to be sending out messages of cautious optimism.
One clear note of optimism comes from Crossroads Theater this week.
The highly-regarded regional theater, winner of the 1999 Tony, which
has been dark since fall 2000, has announced the appointment of new
staff and a three-play fall season set to launch on Wednesday, October
23. Roberta Coleman, former AT&T executive and Phi Beta Kappa graduate
of Fisk University, is Crossroads’ new executive director. She leads
a seven-member management team headed by artistic director George
Faison, with producer Curtis Hodge, and general manager Sherry Moore.
While details are not yet firm, board member Dick Miller reports that
fall season will comprise three plays presented in limited runs through
mid-December with plans to present a world premiere musical in early
If the balance of last season reflected the inspiring support of the
public and stalwart nature of the theater community, the prospects
for the new season, both economic and artistic, are encouraging. Is
it a coincidence or something about its theme of reconciliation that
"The Tempest" is being staged at both McCarter Theater and
New Jersey Shakespeare Festival? And how lucky can playwright Regina
Taylor be than to get productions of her two new plays — "Crowns"
at McCarter and "A Night in Tunisia" at the George Street
Playhouse — in the same season?
Strong artistic leadership is evident at our theaters. This does not
mean that the various artistic directors I spoke with are attempting
to either define or determine public taste, but rather to continue
serving the public as a guide into the past and into the growing library
of new dramatic literature. The public is also served by the theaters
that promote social and political dialogue and debate. To this end,
they all agree. There is always the constant question of attendance
and subscriptions, whether they are lagging or exceeding expectations
as the new season gets under way.
Although Emily Mann, artistic director at McCarter Theater, says she
is aware from such sources as American Theater magazine that many
regional theaters across the country are struggling, she says, "McCarter
is very lucky. We are breaking box office records this season. We
are also fueled by the excitement generated by the building of the
new 350-seat second stage, the Roger Berlind Theater set to open this
time next year."
If her declaration, "I don’t pander to audience taste," infers
something about her artistic leadership, it may say even more about
her artistic integrity. "You have to be able to read the times
and know what’s in the air even if you are doing an ancient work that
needs to be looked at anew," says Mann referring to her own new
approach to "The Tempest."
"It’s important to me," she says, "not because Shakespeare’s
play is full of fantasy, but because it tells how Prospero, when he
has the opportunity to wreak vengeance on his enemies, decides that
the greater act is in reconciliation." When I note that this was
Shakespeare’s only really original play, she replies with the information
that her Prospero will be played by a woman — Tony-winner Blair
Brown. Now that’s original.
"There are many new plays opening that deal with forgiving the
unforgivable," says Mann. "It’s in the air. But it’s more
of a risk to do a completely new play like `Crowns.’"Based on
the best-selling book of photographs and interviews of black women
in their church hats by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, "Crowns,"
has been adapted by actor and playwright Regina Taylor, who will also
direct. Presented as a co-production with New York’s Second Stage
Theater, where it will subsequently appear, the show promises a generous
dose of "hattitude."
Another McCarter world premiere is "Fiction" by Steven Dietz,
about a couple that finds out that their lives have not been an open
book. "I think we needed a new version, a new vision, of `Uncle
Vanya,’" Mann continues, "very spare, very beautiful, and
very emotional." Mann will direct her own adaptation in a co-production
with La Jolla Playhouse. In preparing this season, as with every season,
Mann says "What we are doing as artists is reflecting the world
we live in. If a particular play isn’t your cup of tea, the constant
is that it will be done at a high artistic level."
David Saint, artistic director at the George Street Playhouse, reports
that business was actually up last season over the previous year,
yet he expresses concern with the reduction in government, state,
foundation, and corporate funding caused by the stock market crash
of the past year. "We are feeling that now," he says. The
theater is working to develop more individual giving and presenting
two co-productions this season to reduce costs: "Dirty Blonde"
with Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater and "Let Me Sing" with the
Charlotte Rep in North Carolina.
Saint resists my question when I ask him if he think any of the plays
he has picked for this season are a risk. I can’t pin him down and
we laugh. He waxes ecstatic about Suzzanne Douglas who, after playhouse
triumphs as Dr. Vivian Bearing in "Wit" and as Billie Holiday
in "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill," is returning in
"A Night in Tunisia," a Regina Taylor musical celebrating
the female spirit that opens this Friday, September 20. Later in the
season, Saint will direct a double comedy bill of "The Vibrator"
by Arthur Laurents, and "The 75th" by Israel Horovitz.
One way to work with an audience that might be alienated by demanding
plays is to have a public dialogue at which political and social issues
are shared with the artists. Harold Pinter’s "Old Times" was
such a play and it benefited from its post-play discussions. This
season, a play with dance elements that will undoubtedly invite audience
response is "The Last Bridge" by Wendy Kesselman, about a
Another play that Saint says "shows the theater reflecting a changing
world," and could invite discussion is "Let Me Sing,"
a musical about young hopefuls struggling to keep up with a changing
world and define what it means to be Jewish, female, or African-American
on-stage and off. "The more we work on it, the more we see how
this show, that spans the first half of the 20th century, is about
our identity as individuals and as a nation. We are making the George
Street experience a personal experience," says Saint.
Risk taking is generally not part of the mission of the Paper Mill
Playhouse where popular feel good shows have for the past 64 years
have had an edge over shows with provocative themes. But when asked
which is the riskiest venture of the season executive director Angelo
Del Rossi submits that producing the world premiere of a new musical
in the dead of winter might be considered a risk. The musical is "Romeo
and Bernadette," inspired by Shakespeare but sounding more like
the "Sopranos" set in Brooklyn. Another winter entry "Blue,"
by Charles Randolph-Wright, with music by Nona Hendryx, is about a
well-to-do African-American family in the South. Del Rossi hopes the
show, originally at New York’s Roundabout Theater, will feature Leslie
Despite the departure of long-time resident artistic director Robert
Johanson, Del Rossi says no artistic director is being sought as a
replacement. Johanson will be back to direct "Camelot" this
season, as well as others shows in planning. Mark Hoebee, who worked
under Johanson, will have the title of associate director, and is
at the helm of the season opener "Miss Saigon," currently
on stage. Del Rossi reports that, despite drops in attendance last
September, the season’s final two shows, "The King and I"
and "My Fair Lady," played to 100 percent capacity, and total
attendance exceeded the previous year.
"Except for `Miss Saigon,’ the shows this year will not have the
big budgets as last year," says Del Rossi, adding that the costs
of the first four shows of the season are being reduced through co-productions
with various regional theaters. "It’s the way to go," he says.
No artistic director seems to take more risks or asks more of her
audience than the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival’s Bonnie J. Monte.
For the current season called "The Grand Magic," she has balanced
two popular Shakespeare plays, "The Tempest" and "A Midwinter
(adapted from Midsummer) Night’s Dream" and one rarity "Pericles,"
with two relatively obscure classics, Corneille’s "The Illusion"
and Pirandello’s "Enrico IV" (see review page 19).
Is Monte afraid of alienating audiences with too many unusual plays?
"I believe they are aware they are getting treats that other audiences
aren’t getting," says Monte, who also acknowledges that certain
shows don’t attract the individual ticket buyer. "Unlike last
season, in which business bounced back big about a week after 9/11,
we are beginning to feel the hit now with disappointing sales despite
acclaim for our shows," she says. "While our subscriber base
remains healthy, I hope others will come out to see `Enrico IV,’ an
extraordinary experience by Italy’s greatest playwright."
Monte says that she sees the theater in general and the NJSF in particular
as a catalyst for changing the world. "We were determined after
9/11 to do a season that dealt with the power of things to transform
the darker elements like rage, vengeance and bitterness into forgiveness
and redemption. We have done that."
times, directed by Armen Khandikian, artistic director of Yerevan
State Drama Theater in Armenia. October 8 to 27.
features the traditional Christmas tale told through the eyes of Jacob
Marley. Edward Keith Baker directs December 3 to 22.
Robertson about jazz legend Billie Holiday, directed by Susan D. Atkinson.
January 28 to February 16.
with Peter Donat as the Prince. March 18 to April 6.
Leiber and Stoller. May 6 to 25.
of hip-hop, blues, and jazz, stars Suzzanne Douglass and Cheryl Freeman.
Ted Sod directs. September 17 to October 20.
of Mae West written by Claudia Shear and James Lapine, a co-production
with the Wilma Theater of Philadelphia. October 29 to November 24.
Andre De Shields. December 3 to January 5.
Wilson and Tom Aldredge in "The 75th," by Israel Horovitz,
and "The Vibrator" by Arthur Laurents. January 14 to February
to March 16.
by Wendy Kesselman. March 25 to April 29.
18 to 29.
black women and their church hats based on the book by Michael Cunningham
and Craig Marberry, adapted and directed by Regina Taylor. October
15 to November 3.
heartwarmer that has become a Princeton tradition, with scenery by
Ming Cho Lee and featuring John Christopher Jones as Scrooge. December
9 to 29.
unconventional production of Shakespeare’s final magical drama. February
11 to March 2.
couple who decide to share their diaries. March 25 to April 13.
love and mid-life anguish, adapted and directed by Emily Mann, and
featuring John Glover. April 29 to May 18.
$22 to $41.
human existence. $32 to $51. Continues to September 29.
by Brian Crowe. October 29 to November 24.
for family audiences adapted from Shakespeare’s summer comedy. Joe
Discher directs. December 3 to 29.
popular Broadway shows of all time. October 30 to December 8.
January 8 to February 9.
comedy by Mark Saltzman that sends Romeo to Brooklyn in 1960 and into
the arms of the daughter of a mob boss. February 19 to March 23.
2 to May 18.
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