October 14, 2020

New Jersey Theatre Alliance Presents “Theatre and Civic Engagement”; Panelists Include Paula T. Alekson of McCarter, Ryanne Domingues of Passage

“THEATRE AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT”: In partnership with the New Jersey Historical Commission, New Jersey Theatre Alliance presented “Women in New Jersey Theatre: Theatre and Civic Engagement.” Among the panelists were McCarter Theatre’s Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson (left) and Passage Theatre’s Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues. (Paula T. Alekson photo by Matt Pilsner; C. Ryanne Domingues photo by Claire Edmonds)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In partnership with the New Jersey Historical Commission, New Jersey Theatre Alliance presented Women in New Jersey Theatre: Theatre and Civic Engagement on October 8. Among the panelists were Dr. Paula T. Alekson, McCarter Theatre’s artistic engagement manager, and C. Ryanne Domingues, Passage Theatre’s artistic director.

The panel also featured Dr. Jessica Brater, assistant professor of theater and dance at Montclair State University; and Amanda Espinoza, education and community engagement manager of Two River Theater Company in Red Bank. The Alliance’s deputy director, Erica Nagel, moderated the online discussion.

“Community engagement is happening every time an audience member connects with a theater,” Brater asserts, when asked by Nagel to define “community engagement” and  “civic engagement” as the terms pertain to theater. “It can also happen when a theater partners with a community organization.”

“Civic engagement happens when a performance intersects with our role as citizens,” Brater continues, adding, “civic engagement asks artists, who are creating the performance, to move a step beyond community engagement, to a connection that prompts all involved to consider their role as citizens — and perhaps even to take civic action.”

New Jersey Theater

We produce new plays and arts programming that resonate with, and reflect, our community. So community engagement is in [Passage’s] mission,” says Domingues, after Nagel asked the panelists to describe recent or current projects with which their theater has been involved.

“We produce plays that reflect issues that we think are important to the Trenton community,” which she describes as “diverse” and “active”; and “we also create plays about the Trenton community,” Domingues continues, adding that, after performances, Passage includes “community dialogues, where … we’re bringing in professionals from local nonprofits to talk to people about [a given show’s] issue.”

As an example Domingues points to The OK Trenton Project, which is being workshopped for a production next season. The play documents an incident in which “a group of students from a summer camp got together [and] created a statue called
‘Helping Hands.’” She adds, “We’re
having a reading of it this June, where we’re hoping community members will come out and give us their reactions.”

“An anonymous police officer called The Trentonian and said that he thought that the sculpture … closely resembled a gang symbol, and needed to be taken down,” Domingues says. “The statue was taken down, and the play that we’re creating is about what happened afterward.”

It “talks about police in Trenton, the mayor — how everybody in a community is part of the conversation,” Domingues adds. “We interviewed community members: police officers, students, [and] artists,” and all of the lines of dialogue “are taken verbatim.”

Domingues also mentions a new musical, Group! Written by Aleksandra M. Weil (music), Eloise Govdare (lyrics), and Julia B. Rosenblatt (book), the piece is slated for a full production in 2022. It examines “six women who are part of a therapy group, dealing with different types of addiction. It takes place in Trenton.”

Alekson discusses what she refers to as “McCarter’s ‘Greensboro’ community play reading project.” The project “grew out of our community play reading program, which had its roots partially in our … partnership with the Princeton Public Library.”

She notes that McCarter and the library jointly present read-aloud events, including the Shakespeare Community Reading Group — which, she emphasizes, are free, “with no performance experience required or presumed.”

Written by Emily Mann, Greensboro: A Requiem (1996) examines the murders of five anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators in 1979, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Like The OK Trenton Project, and Mann’s Execution of Justice, the play is a docudrama, crafted from interviews and courtroom transcripts.

In November 2018 the community reading of Greensboro: A Requiem was held in McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Alekson notes that it was intended as a “response to the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville” in 2017. Alekson shared a “family photo” of the reading’s participants, who “ranged in age from 10 to 85 … they were deeply moved, by both the story, and the experience of participating in the telling of the story.”

Present at the reading was composer and lyricist César Alvarez, a Princeton University arts fellow. Born in Greensboro a year after the massacre, Alvarez is named after two of its victims. Through the connection with Alvarez, in 2019 there was a reading of Greensboro: A Requiem in Greensboro. It was the first program in a weekend of events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the massacre.

Espinoza highlights Crossing Borders, a festival that has been presented annually by Two River Theater since 2011. It is a celebration of new plays and music by Latinx theater artists. Espinoza credits Artistic Director John Dias for seeking to represent and engage with the “diverse voices” of Red Bank’s Latinx community. “Once we learn to celebrate our
differences within ourselves, we become powerful,” she says.

Two River Theater also emphasizes accessibility programming, which Espinoza emphatically applauds, having taught the Hunter Heartbeat Method (a Shakespeare-based intervention that helps Autistic children with skills such as eye contact, and facial emotion recognition and production). “We went into the community and started working with 175 plus students, from kindergarten to the 30s,” she says, adding, “[We] started seeing people coming to the theater, because they understood what was going on and felt a part of it.”

In addition to her work as a professor, Brater is a director whose current project is Florida! Written by Amanda Sage Comerford, and presented by West Orange-based Luna Stage (as part of their Voting Writes Project), the play will livestream October 15 at 8 p.m. on the company’s Facebook and YouTube pages. The play is inspired by the artists’ experiences working with Vote Forward to write to Florida voters.

The Future; Effective Use of This Time

“This is how theater has always been — a social activity, a civically-minded activity,” Domingues asserts. “I don’t think people have seen the end of live theater as a result of the pandemic.”

Alekson notes that Sarah Rasmussen has succeeded Mann as McCarter’s artistic director. “Can you imagine starting your new job as an artistic director in the midst of a pandemic, wondering, ‘when will we open?’” Alekson remarks, adding, “It’s very exciting, in a very sad time.”

Nagel asks the panelists what their suggestions would be for “using this time to develop as an artist.” Domingues replies, “It’s a great time for output, but I think it’s a really great time for input. When you read someone to greatly inspires you, you can’t help but create.” She notes the 24 Hour Plays series of “Viral Monologues,” which is available for viewing online.

Alekson, who has taught an adult class in solo performance, encourages artists to use online avenues such as social media to “start generating your art and putting it out.” She adds, “If you are excited to tell the story, there will be people who will be engaged by your excitement, and your passion.”

To view “Theatre and Civic Engagement,” visit New Jersey Theatre Alliance’s Facebook page. To learn about future events visit njtheatrealliance.org.