Chris O’Connor founded Mile Square Theatre (MST) in 2002 while he was pursuing his master’s degree at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. He recently announced that he will be stepping down from his role as Artistic Director in January 2022.
The company got its start performing shows in Hoboken’s parks, libraries, high school auditoriums, and even private homes. In 2008, MST took up residency in the Monroe Center and began producing regularly while building a committed audience base. The organization soon found need for a larger space and built a new theatre in uptown Hoboken in 2016 where it resides today. MST now boasts of being the largest non-profit performing arts organization in Hudson County.
New Jersey Stage reached out to O’Connor to learn more about his decision and what he plans to do in the future.
Why did you decide to step down now? Is it a matter of 20 years seems like a nice number or you feel the company is in the right place now. Are you planning to pursue new projects?
It’s a bit of both. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m now tenured at Molloy College and am chair of the theatre department. I’ve been juggling two jobs these past 20 years and it’s time to pull back a bit. I really do think MST is in a good place at this moment. We survived the pandemic and are well-positioned financially to begin producing again. We just paid off our construction loan which built out the new space. We’ve got a great board. I’m leaving the company in a strong position. I will pursue some other things. I’d like to avail myself as an actor for on-camera work, and I’d like to do more writing.
You said you'll still be involved in many ways, but it's time for new leadership. How do you view your position with MST in the future?
I’m joining the board, and I’m staying in the community to advocate for MST. Plus I’ll advise the new AD until it’s not necessary. There may be opportunities for me to contribute as an artist, but I’m fine being in the background and helping in any way I can.
Tell me about starting the company. You started it while going for your Master's degree, right?
Yes, the idea came in my first year at Rutgers when I was in grad school for directing at the Mason Gross School of the Arts. It was a two-fold impulse; 1) I wanted to create a place for myself to work and grow as a director and 2) I was really keen on the idea of creating a regional arts organization that had strong connections to the community. I had big dreams, and I’m so grateful that I’m leaving a strong organization that is sustainable.
Did you grow up in New Jersey or did you move here to attend school?
I grew up in the Midwest. I’m an Iowa boy. Went to college in Pittsburgh at Carnegie-Mellon University and lived a decade in Los Angeles and a decade in Seattle. My wife and I came out here as actors. We landed in Hoboken in 1997. We have never left. We’re in the same apartment!
Hoboken today is much more active with the arts than when you launched MST. What are some things about the town and the arts scene that you've noticed?
When I came here it was notable that there was a lack of an artistic culture. There was a music scene, thanks to Maxwell’s, and there were a good number of visual artists. Theatres always struggled to take hold here. Over the years as Hoboken’s real estate market heated up, we saw a lot artists leave. But despite that, there are still a lot of artists in town today; musicians, actors, writers, visual artists. We’ve found a way to survive here. In the past 10 years or so there seems to be more of will to retain an artist community, which is hard to do in an affluent city like Hoboken. I think many people here now think that art is important to the health of a city. I’ve been using that argument to garner support for MST and that’s been a big reason for our growth and success. People always tell me how much they love having a professional theatre in their city. The political class has done more for the arts in recent years. When I first started out there wasn’t much understanding of how art can enliven a city and can contribute to its economic health. I’m happy that Mayor Bhalla has devoted 1% of bond funding to public art. That means a lot. I wish there were more resources for performing arts, but that will come.
Finally, tell me about your favorite memories at MST... what were your favorite productions? what are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of 7th Inning Stretch; 7 10-minute plays about baseball. If I had one good idea, that’s the one. It has always been one of the most difficult tasks for me as a producer, and every year I curse it while working on it. But when we finally show up at the theatre to make 7 new original plays in the spirit of joyful theatrical collaboration, it always has filled me with great satisfaction. I’ve been really lucky to direct some great plays. Circle Mirror Transformation with Deborah Hedwall is up there for me. Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream on the waterfront are favorites. It’s been an embarrassment of riches for me. I’m a lucky guy.