A Look At One of Hudson County’s Best and Oldest Theater Company’s
by Sally Deering
Back in the 1970s, alumni from the Argos Eyes Drama Society at Saint Peter’s College met one night in a tiny Jersey City attic and talked about starting a theater where they could put on plays that challenged them artistically and attracted local audiences. By the end of the meeting, that group of aspiring playmakers became the Attic Ensemble.
Several theaters and more than a hundred plays later, the Attic Ensemble has settled into the Barrow Mansion on Wayne Street in Jersey City, a block from the Grove Street PATH in a hip neighborhood where the company continues to stretch and grow. And while hundreds of actors and volunteers have entered and exited the Attic’s doors, the company has stayed true to the mission that was drafted all those years ago in that musty old attic.
This marks the 39th year for the Attic Ensemble and they’ve planned an interesting season that includes a couple of old chestnuts and some new and daring plays. Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn opens September 18th, followed by productions of Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire, The Pillow Man by Martin McDonough and Working- the musical, an early collaboration between Wicked composer Stephen Swartz and other writers. Pretty ambitious stuff for a non-equity troupe that doesn’t have much in their bank account and relies on its volunteer members to keep the curtain from coming down for good.
Art Delo, the company’s artistic director has been with the Attic Ensemble almost from the beginning. He joined the troupe after he’d been bitten by the acting bug.
“I did Promises, Promises with the Attic at Roddy’s Beef and Ale House on West Side and Glenwood in a building that doesn’t exist anymore,” Delo says during a break from Come Blow Your Horn rehearsals. “I think shortly after that, they were looking for a space and my father was a minister at St. Stephen’s (church) on Union Street. I was so desperate to act I had to get them a theater.”
The company moved into St. Stephen’s little theater attached to the back of the parish and from 1976 to 1997, the Attic presented a mix of musicals, comedies and dramas, even Shakespeare. That first year they did The Sound of Music, Twelfth Night, A Celebration of Life, East Lynne, The Roar of the Greasepaint and Alice in Wonderland. Their last year at St. Stephen’s they presented Jake’s Women, A Streetcar Named Desire, Fences and the Sondheim musical, Company.
“We lost St. Stephen’s ‘cause the church closed and it looked like it was finally over for the Attic,” Delo says. “Then one of our members, Wanda Suszka found this space at the Barrow Mansion and we lucked out. We caught the wave and once we were here, we got some great volunteers and actors coming in from New York City. I like to think we have a reputation for doing pretty good stuff and the fact we lasted this long means something.”
Through the years, the Attic has had its share of tough times. Like when audience attendance was so small, there were more people in the shows than in the seats. And there were calamities, too, like when Dracula’s cape set fire during a Halloween show (the actor survived unharmed,) and a prop gun was lost during the performance of a murder mystery. (It was later recovered in a laundry bag.) Delo remembers that night because he was onstage with Ken Jennings, a founding member of Attic, who went on to perform on Broadway in the original cast of Sweeney Todd and other big musicals.
“Ken comes back now and then to see the shows,” Delo says. “He even volunteers and gives programs out at the door.”
There were big surprises, too, like the time during The Heidi Chronicles, when Suszka came out for her curtain call and actor Al Maragni jumped on the stage, got down on his knee and proposed. Suszka accepted and now the couple has two children.
During their ten years at the Barrow Mansion, the Attic has stayed afloat with the money they receive from ticket sales and a small grant. And with the help of volunteers like the company’s new Board President Billy Mitchell, who hopes to attract corporate sponsors who understand the importance of having a successful theater company in their community.
Building corporate relationships and receiving financial backing from sponsors would help subsidize future productions, special children’s theater programs like “Attic Junior,” and support opportunities for Attic to expand.
“We’re a Jersey City tradition,” Mitchell says. “Corporate sponsorship would help us continue our goal to present shows that are artistic and challenging like The Pillowman, a recent Broadway offering and one of the shows we’re doing this season. It’s a very dark, very funny play.”
Plays are chosen through a group consensus, sort of. Members share ideas and the season comes from that input with a final decision from the Board of Directors. Sometimes, the pieces are controversial as was the case a few seasons back when they did a production that had a nude scene. Some people made a big deal about it, Mitchell says, and the controversy even made the news. But the nudity was inherent to the piece and not meant to shock people.
“We’re not doing Oh Calcutta for the sake of nudity,” Mitchell says. “But we did do Six Degrees of Separation, which is a great play that has nudity.”
Gutsy writing and good storytelling also attract good actors and Mitchell suggests that actors who want to play interesting parts should attend Attic’s auditions, which are posted on the company’s website. (www.atticensemble.org)This season there’s something for every type of actor, Mitchell says. Come Blow Your Horn has several older characters for actors of a certain age and Rabbit Hole will appeal to young serious actors who want to gain experience and build their resumes. The Pillow Man will also attract the serious thespian because it’s a challenging piece and the musical Working has parts for both singing and non-singing performers.
The Attic supports non-traditional casting, too, giving actors opportunities to play roles they wouldn’t necessarily be cast in at more traditional theater companies. Judith Moss who joined the Attic 23 years ago when they needed someone to play piano for a Christmas show has done several non-traditional roles including Joanne in Company and the witch in Into the Woods. But there are certain limitations. When asked if she got cast in Come Blow Your Horn, Moss laughed: “I’m not a Jewish mother.”
As opening night for Come Blow Your Horn draws near, actors rehearse, scenery gets painted and the company’s overall energy becomes focused on putting on the show. A few years back, the New Jersey Association of Community Theaters gave the Attic Ensemble an award for outstanding community theater, an award they received for the body of work they’ve done over the years. But it’s easy to see that the Attic Ensemble could never have made it this long without their core members who exhibit a dedication almost unheard of in local theater today. Which makes you wonder why volunteers like Delo, Suszka, Mitchell and Moss do it year after year without pay or any of the benefits Equity theaters offer?
“We do really good work and it’s quite fulfilling,” Moss says. “We don’t make any money, any profit. It’s all for the love of the art – theater for theater’s sake.”
The Attic Ensemble
83 Wayne St
Jersey City, NJ
Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3 pm
Early Riser Thursday at 7pm
Tickets are $20 General Admission / $15 Students & Seniors
All shows: Saturdays at 1pm
Tickets: $5 Kids / FREE Parents & Guardians
Each play will be 40-45 min.,
followed by a 25 min. hands-on educational talk-back.
September 19 & 26
Anonymous, Unknown & Grimm
an eccentric collection of 19th century stories & lessons
Compiled from 19th century primers intended for young children, and from classic tales of the Brothers Grimm, this series of vignettes addresses “old school” behavior and etiquette as well as actions and consequences.
October 14 & 21
The Athlete, Princess, Pirate, Fairy, Welder, Deep-sea Diver Club
a play for people with friends
Oh, the problems of starting an ‘exclusive’ club but wanting to get friends involved! As each friend expresses their dreams, the club’s exclusivity grows more and more inclusive.
February 20 & 27
Jack, and the Beans, Talk.
Or, Was the Cow Worth the Weight?
a timeless story for our time
A talk show style re-telling of Jack’s journey from rags to riches, with surprise guests and unpredictable responses from otherwise neglected characters whose points-of-view don’t always support Jack’s story.
April 24, May 1 & 8
a fill-in-the-blanks mystery
A classic, comic, heist adventure with a twist. The first ten minutes are Mad-Libs® style, where the audience provides key nouns, verbs and adjectives — all of which the cast then incorporates in the telling of the tale.