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Changing The Way People
Look At Camden

By Gary Wien


This article was originally designed to be read in the September 2014 issue of
New Jersey Stage magazine. To read it in its original format, click here

Starting any theater company is a risky venture. Imagine trying to start one in a city with a heavily damaged reputation like Camden. Joseph M. Paprzycki was given a golden opportunity to do just that and the Camden native jumped at the chance. Ten years later, the theater company is going strong and is bringing people to the city - many, for the first time in years, if ever.

The story of how the South Camden Theatre Company came about is like a fairy tale. Paprzycki was a prolific playwright who attended Sacred Heart Church in Camden. At the time, he was shuffling back and forth to New York City for his productions. One day, Monsignor Michael Doyle asked him why he never did any of his plays in town. Paprzycki asked him where would he put them and Doyle said he could use the Church basement. So he did.

They organized a reading of Paprzycki's play, "Last Rites." The play is set 1967 when the Camden shipyard closed, leading to a major loss of jobs and an exodus from the city. Ironically, the play takes place in his grandfather's old bar, which was located across the street from the Church. The reading raised about $800, which helped purchase the materials used to build the theater's original stage. One year later, the company staged "Last Rites" as their first official production.

His grandfather's bar had been boarded up and abandoned for at least a decade. It was sold several times since his grandfather and the current owner had died, leaving behind a federal tax lien on the property. To Paprzycki, the building - heavily damaged from years of water pouring in - stood as his dream site for a theater. He mentioned the idea to Michael and Helene Pierson of The Heart of Camden, an organization whose mission is to rehab neighborhoods.

"I kept saying to her, ‘My grandfather's bar should be a theater," recalled Paprzycki. "When we opened the first show at the Church, she laughed and walked away. I asked her again a few months later and again at the opening of the theater. At the opening she said, ‘The third time somebody comes to me with an idea, I start thinking seriously about it.'"

A new program had been launched to help pay off federal debts on properties and allow the city to acquire buildings like the bar. Paprzycki's dream site ended up being one of the first properties in Camden to be acquired. Due to the extensive damage of the building, it was unable to be renovated, but they were able to do the next best thing - build an exact duplicate of the bar and place a theater inside.

"We're building you a theater, what do you want?" Paprzycki was asked by the city. It was the question everyone involved in theater wishes to hear. Thanks to his experiences in small theaters around New York City, Paprzycki knew exactly what he wanted. He asked for 96 seats, so they remained below the first tier for Equity. He got a beautiful dressing room and a great green room. Most importantly, he got 3 stories of fly space, something unheard of for a theater of this size.

In September 2010, the South Camden Theatre Company marked the opening of their sixth season in the brand new Waterfront South Theatre with "Last Rites," the play that started it all. The new theater was the perfect vehicle for Paprzycki's mission. As a playwright himself, he made sure the theater had a relatively unique goal. He wanted to produce new plays at the theater and also present works by the best playwrights in history. He just didn't want to do the same plays that everyone else was doing.

"I don't want to do the plays that everybody knows," said Paprzycki. "I'm going to do a play that allows you to see another side of a great playwright. Hopefully you'll go ‘Wow, that Camden company does stuff I've never heard of' and hopefully we do it well enough that it brings you back. I like to bring plays here that you've not seen because if I'm going to do a play that everybody else is doing then why are you going to come to Camden?"

Paprzycki knows the city's reputation is hard to overcome. He says he often hears people describe the theater as an oasis. They get to the theater by driving past the old, broken down shipyard or burned out buildings in Center City Camden and discover a neighborhood that has been redeveloped. He says people should feel safe when they come. There's plenty of available parking spaces and security cameras at the theater. The City of Camden has an Eye in the Sky camera and improved its police presence when it moved from a city-based force to a county-based one, leading to a large increase in the number of officers on the street.

"I guess it ties into faith," says Paprzycki. "I always had faith that we were going to have money for the next season and have the people for the next season… If you had asked me ten years ago if I thought this would last ten years, I think I would have said yes. A lot of people thought I was nuts in the first place. They said how can you have a theater company in Camden, nobody will ever come. But we've had 500-600 people for a production and that's pretty good. People said no one would come to Camden at night, but they do. The first time, they might be a little scared and I get it. I'm not naive. But I've seen a car bring a couple to the theater for the first time, then they tell their friends about us and when they come back for the next play, there's another couple with them. That's how this has grown. It's people who come and then bring friends and then more friends."

Faith is the theme for the company's new season. They will be presenting "Broken Glass" by Arthur Miller (the first time the company has presented a work by him), "Agnes of God" by John Pielmeir, "Fortune Cookies" by Paprzycki, and "King Hedley II" by August Wilson.

His faith in the ability to have theater help revive the area is rewarded every time he sees people give Camden a chance. He's excited to see small groups from Gloucester City (a mile or two from Camden) enter Camden for the first time in years and grow in size as they return for the next show. Restaurants in Gloucester City are starting to add special menu choices designed for theater-goers to make sure they can have a nice dinner and still have time to make it to the show. The theater company even has one group that meets in a restaurant in Gloucester City for dinner and then goes to the play. Afterwards they head to the theater's home bar where they get to meet the cast and hang out. If there is anything in the play they didn't understand, the cast and crew will discuss it with them.

"You're watching these people that may have always thought plays were just musicals and now they're coming in and seeing works by Sam Shepard, Eugene O'Neil, Tennessee Williams, and my work. It's really gratifying to see a theater audience growing within a community. And it really is a community; it's people talking to friends and neighbors and coming together. They're turning it into a four time a year event. It's an event for them. It's beautiful."



For more by this author, click here






"Kinky Boots" Comes To Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City
(ATLANTIC CITY, NJ) -- Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City in conjunction with TROIKA Entertainment is will present KINKY BOOTS, the smash-hit musical that brings together four-time Tony® Award-winner Harvey Fierstein (Book) and Grammy® Award-winning rock icon Cyndi Lauper (Tony Award-winner for Best Score for KINKY BOOTS), at Sound Waves in Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City from April 30 until May 5 with two performances on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets starting at $35.00.
The Panto Company Presents "Beauty and the Beast" at The Newton Theatre
(NEWTON, NJ) -- When you think of a dying rose and a clock, candlestick andteapot who talk... you are thinking Beauty and the Beast. One of this season's spellbinding family shows from The Panto Company USA stars Dame Dotty Potty, Loopy Louie, Gaston, Belle and of course The Beast!  The company brings their show to The Newton Theatre on Sunday, March 3 at 3:00pm.
La Strada Ensemble Theater Presents "La Bella Familia" by Edwin Sanchez
(OCEAN GROVE, NJ) -- La Strada Ensemble Theater presents La Bella Familia by Edwin Sanchez from January 18-20.  The play deals with a Puerto Rican hit woman and the gentlest man in the world move next door to the neighbors from hell and everyone learns, the hard way, that family comes first.
Art House Productions Presents "The Passion Project" by Reid Farrington
(JERSEY CITY, NJ) -- Art House Productions presents the unique theatrical experience that is Reid Farrington’s The Passion Project performed by Laura K. Nicoll.  Eight performances will take place from February 21st to March 3rd. The Passion Project is a 30 minute vibration between performance, film, and installation. Carl Th.Dreyer’s 1928 immortal masterpiece, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is the main narrative along with the history behind the making of the film, a discussion with a Danish archivist, the story of making this project, as well as Joan’s own story –– her trial, torture, and execution. The Passion Project explodes the film into the three dimensions; placing the audience inside the film, sitting next to Joan, subjecting them to the relentless rhythm of 35 mm film projection.
4th Wall Theatre Presents "Intimate Apparel" by Lynn Nottage
(MAPLEWOOD, NJ) -- 4TH WALL THEATRE continues its 22nd season with a one weekend run of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel.  The show will be presented as part of the Black History Month celebrations on February 22, 23, and 24 at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts in Maplewood, NJ.  The show is directed by 4th Wall Executive Director Gwen Ricks-Spencer.


It's "Apple Season" at NJ Rep
Every family has stories. Some are funny. Some are sweet. Some are sad. And some are never shared. Those are often the most powerful.
Rise of the Goatman
Theater For The New City presents Beltsville/Rockville, Part 1: Rise of the Goatman, an original play by Englewood resident Matt Okin (Artistic Director of Black Box Studios), from December 27 through January 13. In this pseudo-Southern Gothic dark comedy, a vibrant group of teens from two very different suburban neighborhoods clash over class differences, drugs, and sex - and the existence of the legendary ‘Goatman’ in 1986. Cut to 2013, and the adolescent kids of those very same teens are struggling to make sense of their family histories - and the same “mythological” creature - that could be holding them back in life.
PHOTOS from "The Winter's Tale" at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
(MADISON, NJ) -- The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s concludes its 56th season with its sixth and final Main Stage production, The Winter's Tale. Last seen at The Shakespeare Theatre in 2008, Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte directs this production of Shakespeare’s tragicomedic romance. Veteran company members Jacqueline Antaramian, Jon Barker, Erin Partin, John Keabler, Raphael Nash Thompson,Seamus Mulcahy, Patrick Toon, and Ames Adamson are among a cast of 20 actors. Performances run now through December 30. 
REVIEW: "It's A Wonderful Life" At Mile Square Theatre
Nestled in a corner of Hoboken, on the second floor, lies the studios of radio station WMST.  It’s a wonderful art deco studio, replete with fine wooden walls, embedded with colorful lights an applause sign.  On stage, we’ve got a few chairs, several microphones and a whole corner wedged with all the necessary props – piano, men’s shoes, sheet metal – to create the audio effects for the production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Betsy Aidem Puts A Woman's Touch On George Street Playhouse's "A Doll's House, Part 2"
Betsy Aidem is a veteran actress you might have seen on Broadway. Or maybe on an episode of “Law & Order: SVU.” Or maybe on the big screen last year in “The Greatest Showman.” But over the next few weeks in New Brunswick, Aidem is adding a brand-new section to her résumé — by helming a sequel (of sorts) to a classic play that’s more than 100 years old.






Event calendar
Friday, Jan 18, 2019


MUSIC

John Forster at the Minstrel @ Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, Morristown - 7:30pm

David Massengill - Folk Concert @ Christ Congregation Church, Princeton - 8:00pm

SAL "THE VOICE" VALENTINETTI @ Mainstage @ Union County Performing Arts Center (UCPAC), Rahway - 8:00pm

The Elvis Birthday Bash @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 7:30pm


THEATRE

"Apple Season" by E.M. Lewis @ New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch - 8:00pm

Annie Jr. @ The Oakes Center, Summit - 7:30pm

Some Girl(s) @ Studio Playhouse Upper Montclair, Upper Montclair - 8:00pm







COMEDY

Big Apple Comedy Club @ The Newton Theatre, Newton - 8:00pm


MISC

The Jason Bishop Show to Benefit CASA @ Pfleeger Concert Hall, Rowan University, Glassboro - 7:00pm

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