John McEwen, Executive Director, New Jersey Theatre Alliance:
I was thrilled when Andy Donald, Producer of Artistic Development and Community Programming for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark, approached us about collaborating on NJPAC Stage Exchange: an inaugural commissioning program that would involve NJPAC, the Alliance and three of our professional producing theatres. New Jersey’s theatres have a strong track record for incubating new pieces and contributing to the American theatre repertoire. We believe this project is unique in its design and diverse collaborating partners, and can serve as an inspiration for other presenting houses, service organizations, and producing theatres.
The three member theatres selected to participate in this inaugural year are:
Luna Stage Company in the Valley Arts District of West Orange develops and produces new plays by a diverse array of new voices.
Passage Theatre Company of Trenton offers emerging and established playwrights a platform for sharing diverse perspectives on complex and important issues.
Playwrights Theatre specializes in new play development through readings, workshops, and productions.
Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with Andy Donald (AD) and the artistic directors of the three partnering theatres; June Ballinger (JB) of Passage Theatre in Trenton, Cheryl Katz (CK) of Luna Stage in West Orange, and John Pietrowski (JP) of Playwrights Theatre in Madison, to discuss the motivation behind the program and the unique contributions the theatres and their commissioned works bring to the program.
JM: Andy, what was NJPAC’s motivation for initiating the NJPAC Stage Exchange?
AD: When I arrived here two years ago, NJPAC was at an interesting crossroads with theatre offerings, having just permanently discontinued its Broadway series. Because of our proximity to Times Square, we were at a competitive disadvantage to the real thing just fifteen miles away, so unlike many performing arts centers that can fill two-thirds of their calendars with touring Broadway, we needed to uncover a new, fresh way of satisfying the appetite of our regular theatregoers.
We set our sights squarely on the Garden State’s robust, highly productive community and aimed to develop partnerships through joint new play commissions that were mutually beneficial. As the state’s largest presenting house, we figured we could offer them powerful marketing reach and audience cultivation, financial resources, development space, and national exposure. As producing theatres, they could connect us with regional playwrights and theatre artists, provide their infrastructure and expertise in building theatrical productions (since presenting houses rarely have in-house scene shops or casting directors), and ensure the plays we commission together receive first-rate, world-premiere runs at their home venues. In this way, we would help serve their missions in giving birth to new work while they assist us in offering our Broadway-going audience a most unique, local offering on this side of the Hudson River.
And so, in this inaugural year, we’re calling the program (somewhat obviously) the “NJPAC Stage Exchange,” with the working philosophy that these collaborations will be most meaningful if they are true exchanges of both artistry and practicality. It’s our modest attempt, as a major presenting house reinventing its theatre profile, to get new plays out of development purgatory while guiding our audiences to experience exciting work outside of our own four walls.
JM: It is unique for a presenter to be collaborating with a theatre service organization. What benefits do you see in the collaboration with New Jersey Theatre Alliance?
AD: To spread the word and legitimize the program’s launch, we wanted to engage you all at the Alliance. We knew it was important to get your investment and input in shaping the program, since you are the state’s main convener and supporter of this work. Additionally, you would be our sole regular conspirator, since we hope to replicate this program annually with a different set of theatres. Together, we created a formal call to commission new plays—set in New Jersey, about New Jersey, by New Jersey voices—whereby the Alliance’s member theatres submit applications, on behalf of both the playwrights and themselves, for consideration. When chosen, each theatre receives the full commission fee for its playwright, professional development for the playwright to teach workshops in the theatre’s community for the year, and a staged reading of a an early draft at NJPAC in the spring. In exchange—that word again!—each theatre must guarantee the as-yet-written play a world premiere in their following season.
JM: The commissioned works are diverse; however, the common thread they have is that each playwright has a connection to New Jersey and they each tackle issues facing the Garden State. Cheryl, John, and June, tell me a bit about the playwright you are working with, his or her piece, and the New Jersey connection.
CK: Nikkole Salter is an OBIE Award-winning actress and dramatist. She has had plays produced around the county including Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick. This play will be the third play we have produced by Nikkole, and the second commissioned play. I believe Nikkole's voice as a playwright is completely unique and of great importance. She tackles issues of racism in a way that no one else does, by simply allowing her characters to behave completely honestly without judgment or apology.
This play that we have commissioned in partnership with NJPAC focuses on the Native American population in New Jersey. It explores the turmoil that occurs when one woman takes up the charge to have a New Jersey school get rid of its “Indian” mascot. Like all of Nikkole's work, it will be based on actual events, but then crafted to create a tense, provocative drama.
JP: Chisa Hutchinson spent much of her childhood (and currently resides) in Newark, and has written a couple of plays about life in that city. Her work is fresh, audacious, and pulls no punches. The commissioned play, as of now untitled, takes place in Newark, and will be about the relationship between a young boy named Tito and the lunch lady at his school. She is known to be a bit ornery, but she takes a liking to Tito, who is having some serious issues with his abusive aunt. The lunch lady is having some problems with her health, and they end up helping each other out. The play is about life in an urban environment told through the eyes of two of the most vulnerable: a black male child and a poor working woman.
JB: David Lee White is a New Jersey-based writer who has written several plays familiar to audiences throughout the state. His play Blood: A Comedy was produced at Passage Theatre (2009) and Dreamcatcher Rep (2012). David also worked with me to create the mainstage shows Trenton Lights and Profiles, which made use of interviews with Trenton residents on the topics of race, identity, and history.
The concept for David’s play, Sanism, will examine the cultural taboo of mental illness and how people have to navigate not only the mental health system, but also a cultural bias in order to get help. Treatment in low-income urban areas is often substandard and insurance companies continue to make mental health treatment more difficult to obtain. Moreover, many victims, their families, and even health professionals are susceptible to the stigmas surrounding mental illness, many of which haven't changed much since the days of Bedlam, shock treatments, and frontal lobotomies. Sanism will be based on interviews with people from Trenton and other New Jersey cities who have suffered, or are currently suffering, from mental illness, as well as their families, health care workers, and social-service organizations. The play will attempt to grapple with the question of what it takes to overcome taboos and get victims the treatment they need.
JM: We are very enthusiastic about being a part of this commissioning program and believe it can serve as a role model for our field. What excited you about the project and how do you see it impacting our field?
JP: Playwrights Theatre is honored to continue its collaboration with NJPAC on its theatrical goals. Last year, we partnered to present a series of staged readings by New Jersey writers on New Jersey issues. This program is the next iteration of that. There are a couple of things about this model that are positive and intriguing. The first, most obvious, is the commitment to new work inherent in the effort. The second is more profound. It is a realization on the part of NJPAC of its role in the arts ecosystem in the region—that it can’t and shouldn’t be doing everything, that there are other organizations in the state whose focus allows them to provide in-depth work in certain areas. They have decided to enhance the current community, become a part of it, and avail it of some of NJPAC’s greatest strengths, not the least of which is the pragmatic marketing muscle which can promote the work, but also its imprimatur in providing world-class artists to the region. By bringing us on as partners, it associates us with world-class artistry, which is invaluable to our individual organizations, and dare I say it—our brands. There is a concurrent strength and humility in the move that is admirable on a number of levels.
JB: I think this commission model demonstrates to the greater field the possibility existing for major presenting houses to collaborate with smaller development theatres in their regions—to cross pollinate new theatre forms and voices. NJPAC created this idea and structured this seminal year’s opportunity for Passage Theatre, Luna Stage, and Playwrights Theatre—all known for their focus on developing and producing new work. For Passage Theatre this opportunity broadens our reach to northern New Jersey, increasing awareness of and exposure to the cultural and social fabric of the state’s capital, Trenton.
CK: I think this model is fantastic. It is a win-win for the presenting organization, the small professional producing theatre, the artists, and the communities they all serve. I applaud NJPAC for being innovative in their desire to collaborate and impact the field, and I applaud the New Jersey Theatre Alliance for recognizing the national implications of this program. So many cities around the country have large presenting organizations/PACs that could use their resources to benefit artists and smaller organizations in their regions. I hope this program will become a template that is adopted and morphed to suit each individual community’s needs and strengths.
JM: NJPAC and the Alliance are planning a wide range of activities to share the program design with peers in the field and to create opportunities for audiences, artists, and scholars to have rich and engaging conversations around the development of the pieces and their topics. Programs being planned include presenting the program as a case study at various local and national conferences for presenters, playwrights, and theatres, as well as a symposium after each staged reading. These symposiums will offer the playwrights additional information and insight which will impact their continued development of the piece. We hope to see this program continue in the years to come, grow in scope and depth, and be replicated by other theatre communities nationally and internationally.
For more information on NJPAC Stage Exchange, please visit njpac.org/events/detail/njpac-stage-exchange-the-commissions