By Sally Deering
Tucked away in the back of Barrow Mansion, a beautiful old building on Wayne Street in Jersey City, men and women dressed in 1940s costumes roam the rooms like ghosts waiting for their guests to arrive.
And arrive they will as The Attic Ensemble prepares for the first show of its 43rd season with the 1949 police drama DETECTIVE STORY by Sidney Kingsley. It opens Fri, Nov. 8th and runs the next couple of weekends. Directed by Attic’s Executive Director Billy Mitchell, DETECTIVE STORY features 22 actors who play 34 shady and not-so-shady characters who come through the doors of a New York City police station.
It’s a Sunday evening just five days before the show opens and actors are rehearsing in their costumes – designed by Yolanda Keahey of Jersey City – while Mitchell keeps things moving, correcting lighting cues and coaching actors in their scenes. The stage is set with old, worn-out desks and chairs, period typewriters and telephones which ring constantly throughout the play. Think TVs “Barney Miller” only set in the 1940s instead of the ‘70s.
There’s a certain charm about The Attic Ensemble even though there’s an underlying uncertainty about its future. For the past 42 years Attic has presented contemporary plays and musicals in Jersey City and after 42 years of struggling to make ends meet, the company’s future is as wobbly as a backstage prop table.
“It takes a good number of people to run a theater company,” Mitchell says, taking a short break as the company prepares for a run-through. “None of us takes a salary, we do it because we love it and we feel passionately about it. Last season was tough for us. ROPE (the play) was up two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, and it affected our attendance. We couldn’t do a third show because of a rights issue. We used to have an office in the building but we couldn’t afford it this year. Now everything is in someone’s garage. Essentially for the foreseeable future, everything we do will have to be from scratch. This set, what you’re looking at cost of $1200.”
BATTLING WINDMILLS, KEEPING ITS MISSION
Attic Ensemble is a non-profit theater company run by a Board of Directors that makes the creative decisions, but in order for the Attic to move forward, Mitchell says the company needs a board of directors made up of financiers who can fundraise and attract community members who can bring money into the company. Financiers like these are called “angels” in show business and they’re usually theater-lovers and/or community leaders who see the importance of having a theater company in their community because it enhances the quality of life. That’s what Attic Ensemble’s mission has been these past 42 years. In essence, its mission is to ‘balance high artistic standards with accessible ticket pricing…and offer theatergoers and theater artists a mutually beneficial environment in which creative craftsmanship may be practiced and appreciated.”
Alberta Thompson is one of the 22 actors in DETECTIVE STORY. In real life, she’s a retired police detective and in her spare time she’s taken acting classes and played roles in films. Although she doesn’t get paid, Thompson travels from Staten Island to be in DETECTIVE STORY and she’s “having a blast.” She says: “It’s my first show with Attic Ensemble and this is the greatest group of people I have ever met.”
WHEN THE GUN IS GONE, THE SHOW GOES ON
Camaraderie and pulling together for the sake of the show seem to be the sentiments most of the actors, a mix of old-timers and newbies seem to share. Some have been with the company since its early days in the 1970s, like Art Delo, who plays a police lieutenant in DETECTIVE STORY. Delo has had many memorable experiences performing in Attic Ensemble shows like the time an actor took an important prop – a gun – off the stage by mistake and left the rest of the actors on stage to improvise. Somehow they made it through the scene, Delo says, and just like that fast save to cover the loss of the gun, Attic has had several saves to stop the curtain from going down for good.
“This is probably the fourth time I’ve gone through a troubled period where it looked like it was over and yet here we are,” Delo says, during the 10-minute intermission. “It somehow survives. We’re not a professional theater. We’re not the conventional community theater, either. Our core has never been more than 8-10 people and we desperately need people. If you have talent and a vision you can become a major part of what we’re doing. We’re not looking for infantry, we’re looking for officer-material. There’s the opportunity to come in and work at the creative executive level. Billy’s been here six years and he’s the president.”
Like Delo, Ron Leir of Jersey City has also been acting with Attic Ensemble since the 1970s. A reporter with the Jersey Journal for many years, Leir now works part-time for the Kearny Observer and continues to act with Attic whenever he can. His first play with the troupe was YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU. He also remembers a time when the actors onstage couldn’t remember what scene they were doing and somehow got lost in the dialogue.
“One play I remember was about Taichovsky, an original play, and the author was there in the audience on opening night,” Leir says. “It was the actor’s nightmare. We went around in circles trying to find our way. It was one of the most horrific moments I ever had on stage.”
Christina Orzepowski of Bloomfield, who plays newspaper reporter Josie Fenson in DETECTIVE STORY is a retired middle-school teacher and one of the founding members of Attic Ensemble. As Delo says, “she was in the actual attic” back when a group of actors who were members of Saint Peter’s College’s dramatics society decided to form their own theater troupe. Orzepowski has been in many Attic productions including RABBIT HOLE, NUNSENSE and STEEL MAGNOLIAS.
“I love working with them,” Orzepowski says. “They’re great people. They do interesting things.”
WHEN 22 LOOKS LIKE 34
The Attic Ensemble took to the Internet and the fundraising website Indigogo to help raise money to produce DETECTIVE STORY, something the troupe hasn’t done before and they received $2,540 in donations. That pays for the production, Mitchell says, and money from the ticket sales will go toward the next production. Since Attic doesn’t pay the actors, Mitchel hopes they walk away with something just as valuable – a great experience in the theater.
“All these people have day jobs,” Mitchell says. “They’re all committed to work and put in the time and they need to enjoy it and get something out of it. I want them to look back and say I would do that again.”
Along with Thompson, Delo, Leir and Orzepowski, the cast features Ryan Bender, Norberto Cancel, Ben Davis, Katherine Doyle, Paul Ellis, Erica Hazel Flory, Andrew Gelles, Phil Haas, Ben Holmes, Paul Kazalski, Ginger Kipps, A.J. Liana, Hank Morris, Jack Pignatello, Vernon Richardson, Bret Sarlouis, Brendan Wahlers, and Amy Rutledge, a Jersey City resident and professional actress who plays several roles.
“I’m very happy to be here,” Rutledge says. “I’ve wanted to get in since I moved to Jersey City. I didn’t know there was a problem, but there has to be a way they can pull together. It’s important for the community. It’s an outlet we need to have.”
If you go:
Nov. 8-17; Fri & Sat at 8 pm; Sun at 3 pm
The Attic Ensemble
83 Wayne Street
Tix: $20 general admission; $15 seniors & students