It was the summer of 1996 and young Brian Crowe was being interviewed for a job as an intern by Bonnie Monte, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University, in Madison. The phone kept ringing, actors were running in and out of her office, there was a stack of papers to read, bills to pay and letters from audience members to answer. It was bedlam.
Crowe remembers the morning well. “She leaned across the desk, amid this madhouse of activity, shook her head, looked me straight in the eye and said 'Brian, whatever you do in your life, DO NOT EVER, EVER BECOME THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF A THEATER !!!'”
And so what is Crowe doing today? He’s the Artistic Director of a theater, and it’s the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, no less. He succeeds Monte.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, that delightful company of actors who stage so many impressive shows each year at Drew University, is his new home, happily so for Crowe, who has directed shows there for over two decades and served as director of education. “I have always seen this theater as my home away from home and look forward to being the artistic director,” he said.
Now, consider this. Crowe is only the third chief in the theater’s long history. Bonnie Monte, in charge for nearly 34 years, will remain as an administrative member of the company. Prior to Bonnie, for decades the theater was run, and run well, by Paul Barry. All those years and just those three.
Being the artistic director of this theater is, it seems, a lifetime chore!
Brian Crowe chuckles. “It is, but when you love doing something, it isn’t really work, as the old saying goes,” he said.
He will take over in January, and bring in a new repertoire of plays, his selections. The theater will not be that different, though.
“Oh, I’ll do the type of plays I like, but, in general, the type of plays will be the same, the same mix of drama and comedy. The one thing I do want to do is introduce contemporary classics. great plays like the great plays of yesterday, but plays that reflect today’s life and times,” he said.
As an example, he’s going to stage more plays by writers like Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neil.
“They wrote about life as they saw it, the American life that surrounded them, that surrounds all of us. Our theater, all theater, needs more of that look. Audience members will enjoy Williams and O’Neil, and others. We want our audiences to see a lot of their plays, not just one or two. Thus is a chance for us here, at the Shakespeare Theatre, to carve out new ground in entertainment, modern entertainment,” said Crowe.
The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams kicks off the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's 2023 season, running from May 31 to June 18
He is not new to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Brian has directed numerous plays there in the 20 years he has been associated with the theater.
“I tend to direct comedies, but we’ll have lots of dramas, too,” he said.
He enjoys the plays staged outdoors in the arena stage the theater runs on the campus of St. Elizabeth’s College, across route 24. “The problem with any outdoor theater is weather, but we instituted ticket plans where you can see the play you missed because of rain just a few days later, We’ll do more of that,” he said.
One of his new wrinkles will be a “Classics for Kids” series of plays - three the first year.
“I have worked all my life to get more kids interested in the theater. We encourage families to attend. We even have a ‘kids go free’ ticket plan. Remember, the kids today are the adult audiences of tomorrow,” said Crowe.
He has worked in kids theater at Drew during previous seasons and enjoyed it, “Kids are great. They only know a little bit about the play they are seeing here, but they get into it, they really do,” he said.
Working with young people is a challenge.
“Hey, everything in life is a challenge. In theater, especially, you need to develop new audiences. We try to do that with kids and I think, so far, we are doing it well,” he said. “We have a great opportunity to expand, and we will,” he added. “We not only want new audiences, but new actors. A theater company is ever changing.”
Is he worried about the new job? The challenges? All the work?
“I am, but in a good way. I saw how involved Bonnie was and how much time it took up. That’s the territory, as they say. There’s the thrill of staging shows and the thrill of getting them out there to the public and drawing a lot of people. I really look forward to all the work,” he said.
Bonnie J. Monte at a rehearsal
He is going to enjoy working with audiences, too. “We have one of the best audiences in America,” he said. “They are intelligent and they understand what good theater is. We try to give them good theater every night of the week. I, all of us, are amazed at how much our audiences know about the plays they are seeing and the authors, too. They help make the theater what it is.”
Who will succeed Brian Crowe as artistic director? I don’t know , but the way things have been going at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, it will not be for another hundred years or so.