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The Rites Of Passage

By Gary Wien

Yes Virginia, there is a professional theatre company in Trenton, New Jersey. Passage Theatre may not be a household name yet, but it's working on it and the company is proud to be celebrating its 20th anniversary this season.

For 20 years, Passage Theatre has been bringing world-class original work to the stage. The theatre started back in 1985 with the production of "The Undoing" by William Mastrosimone. According to Elizabeth Murphy, a former stage manager who worked her way up to producing director and now serves on the Board of Directors for Passage Theatre, the first play was received so well that they decided to start the company.

The early years of any theatre company are exciting, but there was a sense of added importance in being a city's theatrical voice - something that many people felt Trenton was missing.

"It was exciting because it was really kind of raw," said Elizabeth Murphy. "We would all work together in this office in a big brownstone on East State Street that doesn't even exist anymore. It was exciting because people really wanted the Passage Theatre to succeed. That's something that has never changed over the company's 20-year history. It's something that's really great about Trenton and the people who live here - they've always wanted the company to be there and to succeed."

"We didn't have a lot of money, but we were doing some exciting work and we were getting recognized for it."

It didn't take long for the theatre to get funding from sources like the New Jersey Arts Council and Geraldine Dodge Foundation. Having those two on board provided a "Good Housekeeping" seal of approval that led to other funding sources.


The early years included plays by William Mastrosimone, Francis P. Bilancio, Pearl Clege, Bryan Williams, Paula Cizmar, Larry Kirwan, and Jim McGrath. It was McGrath's play, "Roebling Steel" that remains the favorite of Murphy.

"We worked on it for years," recalled Murphy. "And I actually worked on rennovating one of the Roebling factories in Chambersburg for about 14 months. I sort of learned how to be a general contractor at the Passage Theatre. We didn't have a certificate of occupancy there, so I had to bring the building up to code. And I had to do it for very little money. Thankfully people in the community really came out for us."

Jim McGrath spent over two years gathering oral history from people to form the basis of the play.

"It really was a story that belonged to the community that we extrapolated from the community and then created an artistic piece out of it and gave it back to the community," said Murphy.

"We could only perform it for eight days. We could fit about 300 people in the factory and it was standing room only every single performance. There was a waiting list to get in and a line out the door of people to get in. People were in tears at the end of the show. I've had the pleasure to have worked on lots of great shows. I've worked on Broadway; I've done fancy shows and I've done tiny little shows in hole in the walls in New York City. This, by far, is the greatest experience I've ever had. It was incredible!"

Moments like those are what keeps theatre companies like Passage going. It's an extremely difficult thing to make the commitment to producing new work and even harder to stick to that commitment. People tend to go to plays they've heard about or those that have won major awards. Getting people to take chances on new works is very difficult and becomes more difficult when the theatre company is located in a city that's trying to rebuild itself.

Theatres need restaurants and hotels and shops nearby to help draw people. Unfortunately, Trenton has few of those things. June Ballinger, the current Producing Artistic Directory of Passage, says that their audience largely comes from outside of the city.

"Trenton's theatre going community is still very small in numbers," said June Ballinger. "Most of our audience comes from Princeton, Pennington and Yardley. These are people who are coming specifically because they are hungry for provocative or good theatre. It's not going to draw people who just happen to be in town. People have to make a real effort to come to Trenton because there's not too many restaurants or if they're from out of town they probably don't know how to get from Chambersburg to the theatre or even from the hotel to the theatre."


Thankfully, the theatre going audience is one that will drive to an area to see quality theatre. And Passage Theatre definitely has been producing quality work. In fact, you'll most likely start seeing more and more of the plays, which premiere at Passage, move on to bigger theatres. One such play is "The Afghan Women" by William Mastrosimone. This play will be produced by George Street Playhouse this season before hopefully continuing on to Broadway.

Ballinger believes that Passage has been able to attract good talent because of its mission to produce original work. "The actors want to do it because as actors and as artists they're excited about doing new work. Any artist would rather do a new work that might have a future life that they'll be participating in as opposed to doing a revival."

"The staff was always committed to new works because we wanted to give new writers a voice," said Murphy. "Passsage Theatre has always been committed to the underdog. It gives a voice to people who have none. That has always been an underlying mission of the company."

The current season kicks off with "Move It And It's Yours" by Bill Weeden. This is a completely reworked version from the one they produced six years ago.

"Passage is the company that rises like the phoenix," said Murphy. "It's had a lot of hard times and yet it keeps on going and I think that's just a testament to its importance and value to the community."

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

originally published: 11/01/2005

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