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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."



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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.
East Lynne Theater, the Henry Sawyer Inn, and Twin Gable's Inn present Murder Mystery Weekends
(CAPE MAY, NJ) -- The award-winning East Lynne Theater Company, with The Henry Sawyer Inn and Twin Gables Inn, present Murder Mystery Weekends on February 15-16, March 8-9, March 22-23, March 29-30, and April 5-6. Participants can test their crime-solving skills while staying in one of these lovely Bed & Breakfasts. East Lynne Theater Company's Murder Mystery Weekends were cited among one of the top five in the country by "AM NY."  


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
Thursday, Jan 17, 2019


MUSIC


Open Mic Night! @ Black Box PAC, Teaneck - 7:30pm


THEATRE

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


KIDS

AMERICAN GIRL LIVE @ Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC), Englewood - 7:00pm

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