There is a lot of good professional theater happening in the New York Metropolitan area, none better than the New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) in Long Branch, New Jersey. Besides serving as a home for new professional plays, NJ Rep is an arts institution where visitors are welcomed by Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas and her husband, Executive Producer, Gabor Barabas. Their vision for ground-breaking, original theatrical productions has been captivating audiences for nearly two decades.
Barabas has produced plays since she was in her early twenties. In 1970, she founded the Cincinnati Repertory Company and, in 1975, the ART of Philadelphia which occasionally produced less “mainstream” plays. When she moved to New Jersey she focused on acting and directing. In 1997, the opportunity arose to acquire the building that now houses New Jersey Repertory Company on Broadway in Long Branch only blocks away from the town’s oceanfront and Pier Village. A small, intimate playhouse, the house seats 64 and has the right bit of rustic charm to complement the venue.
With the acquisition of this property, SuzAnne realized the important mission to produce new plays in a professional theater. “Playwrights get discouraged and abandon theater to write for more lucrative media such as TV and film, and there is a gradual degradation of theater so that it becomes merely a form of entertainment,” she said. “I wanted to create a dynamic environment where there was a constant ferment to push the envelope, take chances, and make a permanent contribution to the American Stage. At NJ Rep we have maintained an open submission policy and we receive over 750 submissions each year from throughout the country. We give the same consideration and weight to plays by new and unknown playwrights as we do for established writers. We have presented over 350 developmental readings in 17 seasons of new works and produced over 70 world premieres many of which have gone on to be presented by other theaters or have been published for wider availability.”
Happy, World Premiere by Robert Caisley, Directed by SuzAnne Barabas
Barabas, who grew up in Brooklyn, became interested in theater at a very early age. “I had a remarkable teacher in junior high school who had us read the New York Times theater section every Sunday and report on what was happening,” she said. (The teacher also had her students hunt for the “Ninas” that artist Al Hirschfield hid in his black and white drawings of actors, a tribute to his daughter.)
When SuzAnne was old enough to get a part-time job, all of her income went to purchase theater tickets. “I attended Brooklyn College where most of my professors had something running in New York City, so I had a great opportunity to work with directors, actors, designers and producers in the field,” she said. Moving to Philadelphia, she attended Villanova University and then Mason Gross at Rutgers. She wrote several children’s plays and co-wrote plays with her husband, Gabor, including Find Me A Voice and the musicals Immortal Interlude and Hyde and Seek.
Broomstick, a World Premiere by John Biguenet, Directed by SuzAnne Barabas
NJ Rep has received a number of impressive national accolades for its work. In 2012 it was the recipient of a National Theater Company Award from the American Theater Wing, sponsor of the annual Tony Awards for Broadway. One of its recent plays, Broomstick, by New Orleans playwright, John Biguenet, was just nominated for the Steinberg Award by the American Theatre Critics Association. The theater has also received several New American Plays Awards from the Edgerton Foundation in Beverly Hills including one for its upcoming world premiere of Butler, by Richard Strand.
NJ Rep is a member of the National New Play Network, a consortium of 26 like-minded theaters throughout the U.S. dedicated to producing new plays. NNPN’s flagship program is the revolutionary concept of the rolling world-premiere where three theaters agree to produce a new play in three different cities within 12 months. This frequently catapults an entirely unknown play into the national consciousness and enables it to become part of the repertoire of the American theater. NJ Rep has participated in ten such rolling world-premieres in eight seasons.
NJ Rep has also received grants from The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, The Shubert Foundation, The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, The Stone Foundation of New Jersey, The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, OceanFirst Foundation, Investors Bank Foundation, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and others who value and want to nurture the theater’s work. Several plays that NJ Rep has premiered have recently gone on to productions Off Broadway including The Housewives of Mannheim, Poetic License, and Jericho, which had a successful run at 59E59 Theaters, starring Jill Eikenberry. (Read our review.)
Barabas has her own directing style that has been very much appreciated by actors and creative team members at the playhouse. She comments that she works in a “very collaborative” manner. “Each actor has his/her unique style and as a director, I have to be able to shape the play with that in mind. I don’t impose any particular form, but rather sculpt with what I am given.”
Annapurna, an East Coast Premiere by Sharr White, Directed by SuzAnne Barabas
Barabas expresses a great deal of pride in the company’s recent productions. “This has been a particularly good season with excellent playwrights, directors and actors, working along with our tremendous design team and production staff,” she said. “Each play had something special for the audience to mull over, be amazed by, laugh, argue, or cry.” Recent productions included Broomstick, middlemen, Saving Kitty, Noir, Annapurna, Ants, Happy, and Esther’s Moustache. Broomstick was nominated for the annual Steinberg Award given by the American Theater Critics Association, has several productions scheduled through 2016, and was part of a NNPN rolling world premiere. Happy was also a National New Play Network rolling world premiere and was recently published. Annapurna is opening on Broadway. Handle With Care and Too Much, Too Much, Too Many were produced in New York after developmental readings at NJ Rep.
There is clearly a very good dynamic in the theater’s personnel. “We are somewhat unique in that we have a core of designers that work on all our productions,” she said. “In this way we have built a cohesive team that understands our aesthetics and capabilities, as well as our limitations in resources. They communicate almost by short-hand as to how to create the most remarkable and elegant worlds and environments on our intimate stage.” The NJ Rep team includes: Jessica Parks, set designer; Patricia E. Doherty, costume designer; Jill Nagle, lighting designer; and, Merek Royce Press, sound designer. In addition, Michael “Rusty” Carroll builds the sets and Jennifer Tardibuono, stage manager, makes sure that the productions run smoothly.
Admit One, Directed by Karen Carpenter
While SuzAnne directs some of the plays, she always seeks out other directors as a way to enrich the theater. Evan Bergman has directed each season and will be directing the world-premiere of Lee Blessings’ A View of the Mountains. Currently, Karen Carpenter is directing the world-premiere of Admit One that opened on January 16. Jeremy Dobrish will be directing the musical, Date of a Lifetime., while Marc Geller will be returning to direct his fourth play for NJ Rep, the world-premiere of Angels and Ministers of Grace Defend Us. Joseph Discher will be directing his first play at NJ Rep, Butler.
Many of the recent productions have had sold out houses at New Jersey Repertory and runs have even been extended including the recent production of Broomstick, John Biguenet’s one-woman play that premiered at NJ Rep in the fall. There is a solid core of patrons and many new ones have been attracted to the company and its performances. “We have been in our current space for 17 years and are bursting at the seams,” said SuzAnne. “We would like to expand and do more programming, add a children’s theater component, and classes, but are limited by the size of our building. We need help moving to the next level. This can only be accomplished with support from individuals, corporations and foundations that appreciate and understand what it takes to run a theater that develops and produces new works. We especially need an angel or several angels to make this happen.”
New Jersey Repertory Company
2012 Recipient of the American Theatre Wing
National Theatre Company Award
Long Branch, NJ 07740
“Admit One” by Wendy Yondorf (World Premiere Comedy) Directed by Karen Carpenter, January 16 – February 16, 2014
“Date of a Lifetime” (A New Musical) by Kissin and Baumgartner March 6 – April 6, 2014
“A View of the Mountains” by Lee Blessing (World Premiere sequel to “A Walk in the Woods”) Directed by Evan Bergman, April 24 – May 25, 2014
“Butler” by Richard Strand (World Premiere) Directed by Joseph Discher, June 12 – July 13, 2014
“Lucky Me” by Robert Caisley (World Premiere Comedy) Directed by SuzAnne Barabas, July 31 – August 31, 2014
“Angels and Ministers of Grace Defend Us” by Elaine Smith (World Premiere) Directed by Marc Geller, October 14 – November 9, 2014