The Shakespeare Theater in New Jersey, which earned a well-deserved spot on New Jersey Monthly’The list of 52 things to do in New Jersey celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

The upcoming season marks the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic that the Madison-based theater has presented a full lineup of five main stage performances—Enchanted April (June 8-26), The Metromaniacs (August 17-September 4), The Guardian (September 21-October 9), Two by Childress, Two One-Acts by Alice Childress (October 26-November 13) and twelfth night (December 7-January 1) – and an outdoor performance in the beloved space of the Theater under the Sky, A lot of noise for nothing (June 29-July 31). The 60th anniversary gala will take place on Saturday, April 23.

“For people who love Shakespeare, there is Shakespeare. For people who don’t like Shakespeare, there’s a lot of non-Shakespeare,” says longtime art director Bonnie J. Monte. “I think our main goal is to keep our audience coming back and bringing them the kind of exciting experience that only live theater can provide. It’s just not the same as staring at a computer screen. .

Monte spoke with NJM on the history and future of theater by showing classical and classically inspired plays to local audiences.

What does it mean for the Shakespeare Theater to celebrate its 60th anniversary?
Sixtieth birthdays aren’t particularly noteworthy in some areas. But certainly in the acting world, turning 60 is quite the feat. Keeping theaters alive these days is a very difficult thing, made worse by the pandemic.

What is also remarkable is that this is a theater that has only ever had two artistic directors. … It was founded by two gentlemen, Paul Barry and Phil Dorian, in 1963. Paul Berry was the artistic director until October 1990. And then I took over, so I’ve been here 32 years. So it’s really unusual. And what that may have done was give the business a very high degree of continuity.

Because we’ve been around for so long and because we reinjected our mission in 1990 to include an equal focus on education, we’ve truly been able to affect the education landscape in New Jersey in quite a remarkable way. over the years.

Monte has been the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey for 32 years. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey

What makes theater unique?
I think we are the only theater totally dedicated to classical works. Obviously the focus is on Shakespeare, we are the go-to Shakespeare theater in the state. And we’ve expanded the mission over the years to include new works inspired by the classics or derived in some way from the classics. While many people think we just do Shakespeare, nothing could be further from the truth. We do classic authors from around the world from all eras, but we also do a fair amount of new work. This includes what we consider contemporary classics. For example, this coming season, we are going to perform two pieces of
Alice Childress. She was a black writer in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and her work has stood the test of time. … We have this special mission to bring what we would call buried classics to life for our audience.

How has theater shifted gears during the pandemic?
During the pandemic, we managed to do quite a bit of work outdoors. We started a whole online program where we were able to create online content called Pandemic Playhouse. We were able to briefly reopen in the winter for a holiday show. But Omicron, like most theaters, closed us early.

If not, how has Covid affected theatre?
Thank goodness the federal government and the state government stepped up and helped arts institutions through a wide variety of relief grants. It’s what got most of us through this and got us out alive. This is another way that makes the 60th birthday so remarkable. A number of businesses simply couldn’t survive the pandemic. So, in the scheme of huge dilemmas, we are all very proud to have survived one of the toughest you can imagine. We kept thinking about Shakespeare and how the plague closed theaters in England for several years. And we kept thinking, “Well, if they made it, so did we.”

A play performed this year is Enchanted Aprilwritten in the wake of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. What was the reasoning behind choosing such a timely piece, and what do you hope audiences get out of it?
It’s interesting because I’ve programmed this piece three times now and I feel like the universe kept us waiting on purpose, because there couldn’t have been a more timely opportunity to do this piece. It’s a play about how the Spanish flu pandemic devastated the world, just like World War I. So the play is really about the re-emergence of life, in a sense, and people coming out of an incredibly dark situation. World War I, in addition to the pandemic, killed a large number of particularly young men in Britain at the time, and the play is set in England and Italy. It’s an incredible story of waking up and rediscovering the joy of living. I think watching this story, which took place over 100 years ago, will be very uplifting and inspiring for people when they see it on our stage. It’s very funny. It’s extremely funny, it’s very moving, it has a lovely cast of characters. And it’s full of surprises.

The FM Kirby Shakespeare Theater at night

FM Kirby Shakespeare Theater is shown at night. Photo by Andrew Murad

How has the Shakespeare Theater evolved in 60 years?
A huge sum. It started as a very small operation. It started in Cape May, so it certainly evolved geographically. The first 10 years, there was a fairly gypsy existence, so much so that they had to constantly change performance spaces. But then in 1972 Drew University invited the theater to move to campus, and so Drew has been our owner for 50 years, and the ability that we had in the 1990s to renovate and expand the theater has made the performance space finally competitive with other performance spaces from other theaters in America. It is a beautiful jewel of space. And then, in partnership with St. Elizabeth University, we were able to acquire a second performance hall.

So we’ve really grown from a very small type of community theater in its early days in Cape May to one of the most important classical theaters in America. And we are a teaching theater. The vocational training that occurs here is quite profound. We have provided the American theater scene with hundreds and hundreds of emerging professionals over the years who have taken their place in American theater and made a big difference. We went from a small theater to, not big in terms of budget or things like that, but big in terms of influence.

What do you see in the future for the Shakespeare Theatre, whether in the next 10 years or even the next 60?
It’s hard to say, because who knows what the world will do? But I think right now our goal is to slowly but surely return to some semblance of what I would call a totally normal existence. It will take many years for most theaters and most arts institutions to recover. So recovery right now is the main focus.

What are you most looking forward to with this full season return?
Being back in a rehearsal room with a group of actors to put together a season of plays that, to some extent, constitute a larger work of art. We don’t just watch the shows individually, we watch the accumulation of what they do together in juxtaposition over the course of the season. We’re always trying to take our audience on a fabulous roller coaster ride where we go from comedy to tragedy to story, and there’s this wonderful variety of works, all of which speak to the audience separately, but also in juxtaposition as I said, to each other. And it’s going to be really exciting again, to be able to do that.

Click here to leave a comment