There is nothing quite like it. The planning, the preparation, building the set, the rehearsals, the lighting, the costumes, the smell of the make-up, and finally, the thrill of seeing it all come to life in front of an audience on opening night.
Princeton Summer Theater (PST) has been providing these experiences since 1968, and will celebrate its 45th anniversary this season.
It is a unique summer theater company, organized and operated by young people, nearly all Princeton University students or recent graduates. They are from all over the U.S. and what they have in common is a love of the theater and the excitement of participating in this special undertaking, which is unlike any other.
Princeton University has a long history of encouraging theater. Its popular Triangle Club, its connection with McCarter Theatre, and the establishment of the James Stewart Theater — a tribute to one of its most famous alumni — are all testimony to its support of the arts.
In the 1930s, members of the student-run Theater Intime introduced a summer theater at the University. Until the 1950s, the summer company was known as the University Players. In 1968, it became semi-dependent on Princeton University, and was renamed Summer Intime. Then, in the late ’70s, it became known as Princeton Summer Theater. Every summer, a new company of Princeton students and graduates comes together to present a season of four plays and one children’s show.
Dedicated to training future professionals in the theater, PST offers students and young professionals experience working in every area of theater production, from performance and directing, to design, to marketing to theater management. Some famous alumni include John Lithgow, Bebe Neuwirth, among others.
“This is such a valuable experience for us. It let’s us work on our craft,” says PST artistic director Emma Watt, Princeton Class of 2013. “It’s a co-op operation, run by current students and graduates. It’s full-time, and a real ensemble with a company of actors.”
Two weeks of rehearsal are required for each production, and presenting five plays in eight weeks is intense, points out PST communications director and Princeton University junior Maeli Goren. “We work from 10 in the morning to 10 at night. On the morning of opening night, we start rehearsing for the next show. There are a million surprises every day. This work is good work. We’re proud of it. We’re doing it for real.”
Members of the PST staff and company live and work together, and the University provides housing on campus. “I think this is the coolest thing because we all live together,” continues Ms. Goren. “You feel you are enveloped in this little bubble of creativity. One member of the company recently said, ‘I don’t think I have ever talked about theater with so many smart people in the same room before!’”
The artistic director is charged with selecting the plays for the season, and Ms. Watt has chosen, as she describes them, “a romantic musical, a southern melodrama, an adaptation of a famous novel, play and movie, and an Iraq war story.”
The season begins with the popular musical She Loves Me (June 20-30), followed by Crimes of the Heart (July 4-14), the ingenious spoof of The 39 Steps, and the Iraq War story, Time Stands Still (August 1-11). The last is to be directed by Ms. Watt.
“We look for ensemble-based shows that emphasize variety,” explains Ms. Watt. “I do like to have a play by a female playwright. In this case, with Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart.”
The children’s production How Thumbelina Found Her Wings (July 4-6, 11-13, 25-27, August 1-3, 8-10, at 11 a.m.), written by company manager Annika Bennett, is also in that category.
“We have four productions, five performances of each, and Saturday and Sunday matinees,” says Ms. Goren. “The audience here is subscriber-based, and we like to offer them something different. They like the variety, and they are very enthusiastic. People are so excited about us. We are the ones doing summer theater here. McCarter basically closes down in the summer.”
“I’ve been surprised at how excited the members of the community have been and the recognition,” says Sarah Paton, Princeton Class of 2013. A member of the company, who also appeared in PST’s 2012 season, she hopes for a career in the theater. “People see us on Nassau Street and say ‘Weren’t you in such and such play?’
“Another thing that is so special about PST is the opportunity to do all these different productions. I know it will take a long time in my later career to do such interesting plays again. This is a wonderful experience.”
Princeton University junior Pat Rounds, another member of the company, agrees and points out that “This is a professional group, and we’re getting paid to act. It’s a great dynamic, and we have this common goal of going from show to show very quickly and giving our best.”
It all begins, of course, with auditions. It has been correctly pointed out that “The first step to the cast party is the audition”. But the experience can fill the most confident actor with trepidation, and getting the part is an achievement indeed.
Ms. Watt is on the look-out for certain qualities in those who audition. “I look to see how the person is connected to his or her body and how they are listening to the words they are saying, and how that works together,” she explains.
“I look for someone who is having fun and likes to ‘play’,” adds Ms. Goren. “We will all be living together, and I want to feel I can spend time with this person. We have people coming from other schools to audition for us. As a young artist, it’s difficult. We can offer this great program. We will feed and house you, and you get a chance to act.”
Princeton Summer Theater is funded by contributions from various groups and organizations in addition to Princeton University, including businesses, corporations, individuals, in-kind donations, and the sale of tickets. The Princeton community is known to be supportive of the arts, and the performances are always well attended in the Murray Hamilton Theater on the campus, which seats 189 people.
The series of children’s workshops is another popular aspect of the PST season. “The kids love this,” says Ms. Goren. “It’s taught by the actors, and the kids get to interact with them. Also, after the performance of the play, there is an autograph session when the kids can meet their favorite characters.”
Main stage performances are Thursday through Saturday each week at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 general admission, $20 for students. The children’s show is $9. Subscribers pay $65 and save 35 percent for four reserved seats that can be used in any way: one for each play or all for a single performance. For ticket information, call SmartTix at (877) 238-5596 or visit www.SmartTix.com. Contact PST staff at (609) 258-7062 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Curtain Going Up!