NJ Rep Sets the Stage With New Programming
By Aisa Feratovic
As part of Monmouth Arts' 50th Anniversary, we're taking the time to showcase some of our nonprofit member groups that form the foundation of Monmouth Arts' creative community. Today, we're looking at New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep), a nonprofit founded in 1997 in Long Branch. We checked in with Sunjay Venkatraman, NJ Rep’s Marketing and Public Relations Director, to see what's currently going on with the theater's reopening efforts and new season.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced theaters to close their doors, it was unclear when productions would return to the stage. Most performers and theater staff were unemployed for much of those difficult two years. In that state of unpredictability, New Jersey Repertory Company took extra precautions to ensure the safety of its patrons and was able to open its doors. They set the stage for other theaters to follow and were ready to bring life back to Long Branch’s art scene after a long hiatus.
For those who aren’t familiar with your organization, tell us a little about NJ Rep.
We’re a professional non-profit theater committed to developing and producing new plays and to make a lasting contribution to the American Stage. The theater was founded 25 years ago by Executive Producer Dr. Gabor Barabas and Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas.
How has your theater had to adjust since the pandemic? What adaptations would our members be interested in hearing about?
COVID-19 shut down the theater in March 2020. Like most theaters we wanted to continue to provide entertainment during lockdown, which led us to create virtual programming. This programming included pre-recorded plays and Zoom play readings. We also created #Theater5Alliance along with four other theaters across the country. Together, our group collected video messages and performances from notable actors and theater professionals. And thanks to our dedicated volunteers and staff, we were able to reopen. We purchased medical-grade HEPA filters, installed touchless bathroom amenities, and even renovated our 179 Broadway location by installing new chairs, carpet, and lighting fixtures.
What was the production process like for “The Forest,” your most recent production?
"The Forest" ran from March 17 to April 10. The cast began rehearsals shortly after the end of our previous production "The Promotion.” The cast included renowned actress Jenny O'Hara, Armando Acevedo, Dana Brooke, and Chris Grant. Our staff completed a complex set in a matter of two weeks. Check out this video to watch some behind the scenes of the making of "The Forest." Our next production, "The Pin-Up Girls," begins rehearsals this month.
What has the audience’s response been to being in person again?
Our audiences have complimented our commitment on being one of the few theaters open and on our dedication to maintain a safe environment for our staff, actors, and audiences. Many people are still fearful of attending live theater, so once we reopened our goal was to ensure that we were taking every measure, with guidance from the state and Actors Equity Union. Audiences are thrilled to be back in our intimate space, enjoying live theater once again. There is nothing quite like in-person live theater.
Will virtual productions remain a part of your work?
Yes! When we started doing virtual productions we thought it would be a temporary remedy to the lack of live theater. But the response our virtual programming received encouraged us to continue making content. In April we launched a new online short play on Vimeo. In the future, we will continue to put out content such as our virtual art galleries and our poetry programs. The virtual productions reach far beyond New Jersey, allowing the work at this theater to be seen across the country, as well as internationally.
Can you share an interesting anecdote about NJ Rep that would surprise people?
A historical moment in our history is a particular performance of the show "Lily" by Chris Daftsios. During one night in 2019 the theatre lost all power, but as we say in theatre... "the show must go on!" The staff and audience quickly moved to brighten the stage using cell phone flashlights. The show continued despite the technical difficulties, and the audience gave a standing ovation.
What was your inspiration for your current season of shows?
The inspiration for our shows is the same every year. NJ Rep tackles topical, emotional, and over-the-edge plays. The history of this theater is defined by the productions we put on. In the past, we have been labeled as "Eye-Opening Theater" and "Cautiously Reckless Theater." We try to push boundaries and take risks that other theaters wouldn't. The goal is to provide a diverse selection of new plays for each season.
What are you looking forward to for the rest of 2022?
What we hope to see more than anything is the return of our audiences. The pandemic plays a major role on what the future holds, but we will continue to work around the clock to provide the community with live theater. We have three productions remaining this year. In June we will open a new musical "The Pin-Up Girls" which will run to July 2022. Following that production is "Hummingbirds" in August 2022, and the final production will take place in October/November 2022, not yet announced.
We plan to use our newly renovated lobby space for smaller shows such as stand-up comedy, poetry readings, and musical acts. Currently the space is being used for our staged readings, where we bring in a new play to be read for the first time to a live audience. At the end of these readings we open up to the audience and allow for questions and comments.
Give one example of a way you've seen your organization's work make a difference.
As a theater that only produces new plays, we are constantly highlighting up-and-coming playwrights. Getting a play produced today is a battle for many playwrights, but at NJ Rep we are passionate about bringing in writers who are just getting started. One of the best accomplishments is when a playwright gets to see their show in person for the first time. We receive much satisfaction when a playwright can bring a show they work on to life.
Monmouth Arts has a great network of arts supporters. How can our members and readers support NJ Rep right now?
In addition to donations, we offer two subscription packages. Our Flex Pass includes tickets to three NJ Rep productions that can be used any time. The annual subscription is a 12-month subscription that allows subscribers to see any production. Discounts for our Stage Readings are included with both subscription packages.
Where can people find out more about NJ Rep? Website, Instagram, Facebook?
Facebook: New Jersey Repertory Company
Interested in becoming a nonprofit member like NJ Rep?Join Monmouth Arts today!