Shakespeare Theatre Celebrates 50 Years of Classics
Madison theater looks back on five decades as it celebrates anniversary season.
Editor's Note: This is the first of a four-part look at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey as it celebrates its 50th year. Come back each day through Saturday to read more, including a look back through the eyes of the theater's founders, what to expect this historic season, and a timeline of five decades of theater.
As superior works of literature, music and theater stand the test of time—over years, generations, even centuries—they eventually become defined as classics.
Fifty years after its humble, but ambitious, birth in a Cape May vaudeville house, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, dedicated from the beginning to keep classic theater alive, has taken on its own classic status.
“For the company, for anything, for any nonprofit to survive 50 years is amazing,” said Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte, who is busily preparing for Saturday’s benefit gala and her professional company’s milestone season, which begins May 30 with “Henry IV, Part 1.” “It suggests that what we do is meaningful enough for the constituents that they have supported it all that time. … To me, it means the art of classic theater is alive and well and that is what is most important to me.”
Monte, though, should claim her fair share of credit for elevating the profile of the company since taking over in 1991 for co-founder Paul Barry. It was Barry who brought his New Jersey Shakespeare Festival from Cape May to a new home at Drew University in Madison in 1972, taking residence in the leaky old Bowne Gymnasium, which had previously been converted into a lecture hall. Above the ground floor of the old building, built in 1910, an elevated running track was converted into a makeshift balcony. Down below, the old basement swimming pool was used as a scenery and prop shop.
Barry, though, was forced out in 1990 after a long conflict with his trustees and Monte’s arrival, by several accounts, breathed new life and new interest into the company. A campaign to fund a new theater gained steam and, in 1996, a multi-million-dollar construction project began to completely renovate the Bowne into the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, which opened in 1998. The state-of-the-art, 308-seat theater includes a soaring lobby, an outdoor patio, dedicated rehearsal space and is fully wheelchair accessible on all three levels.
Once a summer-only festival, the company now offers six productions annually on the Kirby stage, along with an outdoor production at the Greek Theatre at the College of St. Elizabeth in nearby Morris Township. These edited, family-friendly adaptations of classic comedies, presented under the lights in an authentic recreation of an ancient stone-and-grass Greek amphitheater, have played to huge, enthusiastic crowds since 2002.
Monte also has prioritized education and community outreach as essential aspects of the company’s mission. Along with internships and intensive summer programs for students, the Shakespeare Live! touring company visits schools with abbreviated professional productions of Shakespeare plays for students, study guides for teachers and post-performance discussion for all. Shakespeare Live! also provides free public performances in the summer.
In all, Shakespeare Theatre performances are seen by more than 100,000 people annually.
Monte accomplishes this with an annual budget in excess of $4 million a year and a dedicated staff of full- and part-time employees, many of whom began as students with the company. Associate Artistic Director Joe Discher, for example, is a Madison native, Drew University graduate and former intern who not only has directed several critical and box-office favorites in Madison, but has directed at several prominent regional theaters around the country.
While the Shakespeare Theatre has a loyal subscriber base, funding, as always, depends greatly on grants and donations. There, too, Monte has played a leading role in putting the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on the national map. In addition to obtaining a critical million-dollar grant from the Morris County-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in 2002, the company is regularly funded by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as many corporations, foundations and individual donors.
Finances remain an ongoing concern in an uncertain economy. Yet in recent years, while many theaters have had to make drastic cuts, Monte’s company continues to mount consistently excellent productions and keep its touring company on the road.
“I think it’s high time it was considered for a regional Tony,” said Laila Robins, a celebrated TV, film and stage actress who has done much of her most memorable work in Madison.
“I claim some credit for bringing Bonnie in,” said former trustee Mike Schlesinger. “And that was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
“Fortunate is not an adequate word to describe us getting Bonnie,” said current trustee Rich McGlynn.
But the rich history of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, considered one of the largest and most successful classic-theater companies in the United States, began nearly 30 years before Monte arrived.
“I was a co-founder with Paul Barry,” said Philip Dorian, now a theater writer in Red Bank. “But Paul was the driving force. The concept was his. It became ours.”
Barry came east from Michigan, where he gained experience in summer stock, looking to establish a company that could tap the abundance of talent in New York City.
“Cape May was a summer Mecca, but had no theater,” Dorian said. “And we could get good actors, New York actors, who didn’t want to go to Michigan to do summer stock.”
Barry and Dorian both remember Cape May as a rather conservative community, yet from the very start, Barry was determined to challenge his audience and even the definition of what constituted classical theater. The company’s first production: “Rhinoceros,” a surreal, absurdist tale written by Eugene Ionesco in 1959 (Monte revived “Rhinoceros” again to critical acclaim in 2000).
“I wanted to start out by ramming it down their throats,” Barry said during a recent interview at his Morristown home. “Thinking if they didn’t want to buy it, screw ’em, we would go someplace else. ‘Rhinoceros.’ ‘Roshomon.’ Tennessee Williams. Shakespeare. All of it.”
“Roshomon,” also from 1959, was among the nine productions the company mounted that summer. So were the commercially popular comedy “Come Blow Your Horn” and the musical “South Pacific.”
In those early years, the company only applied the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival name to Shakespeare productions. “Taming of the Shrew” was the festival’s only Shakespeare play in 1963.
Barry also initiated the grueling practice of performing plays in repertory. Summoning the resources of his small equity company (including Christopher Lloyd, of future “Taxi” and “Back to the Future” fame) and a large apprentice company, the troupe was capable of giving the audience three different productions in two nights. This practice likely peaked in 1983 with a repertory presentation of Shakespeare’s exhausting “Blood and Roses” tetralogy, which includes “Henry VI” parts 1, 2 and 3 along with “Richard III.”
For its entire residency in Cape May, Barry never took the foot off the gas, mixing Shakespeare and other classics with edgy works such as “Marat Sade” and lighter fare such as “Barefoot in the Park” and “Guys and Dolls.”
“Phil Dorian always said, ‘Cape May Playhouse? Cape May nuthouse!' ” said Ellen Barry, Paul’s wife and longtime theater partner.
“It was a bit like boot camp but it was amazing,” said Davis Hall, a longtime company member who joined the as a college intern in 1966. He also worked for both Barry and Monte in Madison. “Ten plays in 12 weeks. It was pretty much nonstop. The idea was everybody got a little taste of everything, acting, building sets. We slept on the set. I probably learned as much that summer as I had learned to that point in my life.”
Ellen Barry came in a few years after Hall as a Northwestern University student serving as an apprentice.
“It was love at first sight,” Paul Barry said. “She came into my office, I looked at her and I said, ‘there’s the rest of my life.’ ”
“Paul always says it was love at first sight; I don’t remember it quite that way,” Ellen Barry said with a laugh. “But I was just astonished by the variety of plays he was doing. It was lunatic what he was doing. Who does ‘Marat Sade’ in one-week stock? The work was—who knows how good it really was, memory colors things—but I’m quite sure it was better than it had any right to be under the circumstances.”
The Cape May community responded to their tireless artistic labors. Barry said he averaged about 150 customers nightly in his 200-seat theaters, while Dorian said they also received support from a few key community members, including the mayor of Cape May and former Rep. Charles Sandman, who pitched in with some pro bono legal work.
“We survived in Cape May until the landlord tore the theater down,” Paul Barry said of his former home, which started life as the Cape May Casino and had been converted into a hospital during World War II.
That was in 1968, limiting the company to a South Jersey school tour of “Spoon River Anthology” in 1969 before Barry and company returned to Cape May in 1970 for a brief residency in the Grand Ballroom of the Lafayette Hotel.
“We returned, did another season, and the landlord tore [that] theater down,” Paul Barry said of his final season in Cape May, and the first complete season to be offered under the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival banner.
From 1965 to 1967, the company also traveled to Boston in the fall to perform three Shakespeare plays in repertory for schoolchildren throughout Massachusetts.
“It was really the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, but because it was sponsored by the Boston Herald-Traveler (newspaper), it was called the Boston Herald-Traveler Repertory,” Ellen Barry said. “Their local TV affiliate also taped Paul’s ‘Hamlet,’ and it became, we believe, to be the first color TV broadcast of ‘Hamlet’ in America.”
Move to Madison
The company as a whole went dark in 1971, although Barry directed two plays that fall and winter.
His move to Madison began with a call from Jim Lee, who then was running the theater department at Drew and was looking to place some students into apprenticeships.
“I told him we were currently without a home, and asked if Drew might want to take us on as a residency,” Barry recalled. “I went up there to meet with the president and in about an hour, we had a deal. It lasted [almost] 20 years.”
Barry also nearly ended up running two theater companies. Before the deal was struck with Drew, Barry was invited in early 1972 to take over as artistic director of the New Orleans Repertory, and he directed two plays there before the company ran out of funding.
“That was a shame,” he said. “I could have done both, New Orleans in the winter and Madison in the summer.”
Instead, Barry planted his flag in Madison, launching a relationship with Drew University that is entering its 42nd year in 2012. Meanwhile, Ellen Barry, who completed her degree and spent time working at McCarter Theatre in Princeton and for David Merrick in New York, rejoined Paul and his company in Madison. They married and have been inseparable partners on and offstage ever since.
With Paul riding his bike to work from their Morristown home, the festival thrived for many years. While Ellen played select roles and took an increasing role in managing the company, her husband continued to direct the majority of plays, starring in others and leading the company through physical workouts every morning.
“He was tremendously physically fit, and it was grueling” said John Pietrowski, yet another Northwestern graduate who joined up in 1981. “And this military-like operation was a strange combination with the 1970s hippie thing going on at the time. We didn’t always like it.”
“It wasn’t calisthenics,” Barry said. “It was actor’s instrument training. Voice and body. It involved ballet movements, movements from yoga, judo. We began the day with a run, a two-mile run.”
Pietrowski finally moved on to the new Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison which, under his direction, became a nationally recognized developmental theater. Playwrights recently was forced to vacate its longtime home at Green Village School, but celebrated its own 25th anniversary last summer and will begin a new residency at Fairliegh Dickinson University’s Collage at Florham campus this summer.
“In the course of those years, I became very close to him. We definitely had our shares of battles,” Pietrowski said of his mentor. “But I do have to say, for better or for worse, I learned a hell of a lot from him about how to run a theater. Both how to run and how not to run a theater. And I’m very grateful for it.”
“He’s a true protégé,” Barry said of Pietrowski. “I had hoped that the trustees would hire him as my successor.”
Instead, after a five-year and frequently tense conflict, the trustees voted to remove Barry and launched a nationwide search for his successor.
The Bonnie Monte era began in June of 1991 with a promising “Macbeth” and her first season ended with a memorable production of “Twelfth Night” that is recalled fondly by Monte, her cast and her audience.
“That first season is cemented in my brain,” Monte said. “Despite no money, a falling-down theater and no room backstage or in the wings, we pulled it off.”
That production featured some prominent actors, including stage and screen stars Edward Herrmann and Elizabeth McGovern, supported by a young cast of future company stars including Robins and James Michael Reilly.
It also included trustee Schlesinger, who was drafted to fill a last-minute role when Monte heard he had some training. Joining the cast on just a few days’ notice, Schlesinger got an uncomfortable education of what it was like backstage—and understage—at the Bowne.
“It was a dreadful space,” unheated, not air-conditioned,” he said. “I’m quite short and was probably the only one who could go down the stairs without hitting their head on a beam.”
“They called it stairs, but it was really more of a ladder,” Robins laughed. “Which you had to climb in costume. Not easy in a hoop skirt.”
“I complained to Jim Reilly, who was the Equity deputy at the time,” Schlesinger said. “I told him ‘Man, it is hot.’ He said ‘Mike are you a member of the union?’ and I said no. So he said, ‘Then you have to talk to management, and that’s you.’ ”
The audience, meanwhile, cheered every performance while coping with the quaint practice of sitting in seats designed for a lecture hall, complete with foldaway desktops. There also were issues with the theater’s inability to meet the handicap-access guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Monte and her company were turning out one strong production after another, but the 88-year-old Bowne was a constant concern.
A capital campaign to renovate the Bowne—and keep the company at Drew—was launched and, swelled by a $1.5 million gift from the F.M. Kirby Foundation, the makeover began following the 1996 season.
Dillard Kirby, a Shakespeare Theatre emeritus trustee, is president of the Morristown-based foundation, which was endowed in 1931 by his late father, Fred. M. Kirby, a founder of the F.W. Woolworth Co.
His mother, Walker D. Kirby, was one of the first trustees of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, having been recruited by the Drew University present in 1972.
“That was in the days when they did a lot of things, including cutting flowers for the gala,” said Kirby, who also was a trustee for many years. “She got my brother and I involved. We became ushers. We must have seen ‘Summer and Smoke’ 20 times.”
Kirby says that individual family member gifts increased topped the foundation figure to about $2 million and his family has continued to make significant financial contributions over the years.
“When Bonnie came on board, it was truly transformative, not just from our perspective, but from the perspective of many others,” he said. “We also appreciated her dedication to the dual mission, the classical work and the educational program that is not fully understood by the public. She has developed and nurtured so many actors and directors, and their dedication and tireless efforts are inspiring.”
The renovations took more than a year, forcing the company to improvise in 1997. Several productions were hosted by the Community Theatre in Morristown, which had barely begun its own impressive restoration at the time.
Another memorable production of “Henry V” took place on the football field of the former Bailey-Ellard High School in Madison, turning the bleachers into seating and using the field’s expanse for a climactic scene. The production got off to an alarming start, however, when a summer squall toppled a temporary light tower and scattered scenery across the field, with some of the actors narrowly avoiding injury.
Finally, the fully restored Bowne, renamed the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, opened in June of 1998, and the company, renamed the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, launched its modern era. In 2002, the company christened its outdoor space at the College of St. Elizabeth with “The Grouch,” a 2,000-year-old Greek comedy staged to delight family audiences.