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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

Holmdel Theatre Company Presents 'ART'
(HOLMDEL, NJ) – The Holmdel Theatre Company (HTC) will present 6 performances of Yasmina Reza’s ‘ART’  from December 7th through December 16th. Translated from French by Christopher Hampton, the play tells the story of what happens when Serge buys an expensive painting, and the reactions of his two closest friends, Marc and Yvan, to his purchase. As what begins as a discussion about the quality of the painting that Serge has purchased quickly devolves into petty jabs and personal attacks, the three men border on destroying their friendships.
Pebble Players Presents "Heathers, the Musical: High School Edition"
(SUMMIT, NJ) -- Celebrating their 10th season, Pebble Players has been entertaining Summit residents and audiences from surrounding towns with sophisticated Off-Broadway quality performances. The 2018 Season opens with "Heathers The Musical: High School Edition," directed by Jayne Myers and choreographed by Jaimie Woodruff.  Performances are Friday, November 16 and Saturday, November 17 at 7:30pm and Sunday, November 18 at 2:00pm. 
NJPAC Presents Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies
(NEWARK, NJ) -- New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) presents Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies from Thursday, March 21, 2019 - Saturday, March 23, 2019. The high-style music of “The Duke” is the heart and soul of this 1981 Tony-winning Broadway hit, directed with dazzle by André De Shields (The Wiz). Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of Duke Ellington, re-creates the original show’s elegant dancing and tapping as choreographer.
Princeton Chinese Theatre in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater present Teahouse by Lao She
(PRINCETON, NJ) --Princeton Chinese Theatre in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater at Princeton University will present Teahouse by Lao She on November 16, 17 and 18 at 8:00pm and November 17 at 2:00pm in the Donald G. Drapkin Studio at the Lewis Arts complex on the Princeton campus. Teahouse is considered a masterpiece of contemporary Chinese theater, spanning 50 years in modern Chinese history from the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the Republican Revolution to the birth of the People’s Republic, bringing together over sixty characters who represent all walks of life. The production is directed by senior Changshuo Liu.
Axelrod's Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts Program Presents "Peter Pan"
(OCEAN TOWNSHIP, NJ) --  A family musical that’s perfect for the holiday season, “Peter Pan” is flying onto the Axelrod stage December 8-16. Axelrod’s award-winning Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts program presents one of Broadway’s timeless classics in a fully staged production directed by Lisa Goldfarb with musical direction by Randy Hurst and choreography by Wendy Roman.  

Broadway’s Next H!T Musical LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center
It’s Friday, October 26, 2018, and the Broadway’s Next H!T Musical cast is just about ready to take the stage at the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts, located on the campus of Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ.
The Last Apple Pie: "Apples In Winter" Opens At Centenary Stage
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See Andrea McArdle LIVE! in Annie at Deal Park’s Axelrod PAC!
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"It's a Blast!" Go See Rock of Ages 10th Anniversary Tour NOW! at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino!
The five-time Tony award-nominated Broadway musical, Rock of Ages, returns to the stage with a 10th Anniversary Tour at Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino! Performed in the venue’s ultra-modern Sound Waves theater, Rock of Ages runs from now until November 4, 2018.
There's One In Every Family: "Charley's Aunt" at The Shakespeare Theatre
On stage now through November 18 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, “Charley’s Aunt” is described as “part Oscar Wilde, part ‘Fawlty Towers,’ with a dash of South American spice!” This side-splitting British farce from 1892 has drag, mistaken identity, romance and plenty of physical comedy. Join Jesse and Dave at rehearsals in Florham Park to hear from the cast and director what makes this such a hilarious and enduring show.

Event calendar
Thursday, Nov 15, 2018


New Politics @ House of Independents, Asbury Park - 8:00pm

THE REPUTATIONS @ The Saint, Asbury Park - 7:30pm

TOTO @ Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC), Morristown - 8:00pm


An Actor's Carol @ Cape May Stage, Cape May - 7:30pm

ANNIE, The Musical @ Axelrod Performing Arts Center, Deal Park - 8:00pm

Apples In Winter @ Centenary Stage Company - Kutz Theater of the Lackland Center, Hackettstown - 7:30pm

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat @ The Levoy Theatre, Millville - 7:30pm

Spring Awakening: The Rock Musical @ Black Box PAC, Teaneck - 8:00pm


PARSONS DANCE @ State Theatre New Jersey, New Brunswick - 8:00pm


Crybaby Matinee: March of the Penguins @ Hopewell Theater, Hopewell - 11:00am

View all events

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