First SHow was Goodnight Moon Charms the Kids ( and parent’s too!)
By Sally Deering
Hallelujah, Baby! The heavens parted and the Gods of Comedy and Tragedy have smiled down on Hoboken with a new theater. Twelve years in the making, Mile Square Theatre can now hang the lights and unpack the costumes in its beautiful, new 140-seat, black box on 14th & Clinton – and what a little gem it is.
A fundraising campaign that took 8 years has finally paid off. On Sat,
April 9th, Mile Square Theatre opened the door to its first season in its new digs with GOODNIGHT MOON, a charming musical based on the beloved children’s book, performed on a set that looks like it jumped from the page to the stage. Up next? A play by Annie Baker, who won the 2015 Pulitzer for Drama, called CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION to be directed by the company’s artistic director Chris O’Connor and starring Obie Award winner Deborah Hedwall and MST company member Matthew Lawler, who also stars on ABC’s The Family.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Hoboken’s Superintendent of Schools Christine Johnson and several Hudson educators were on a visit to Mile Square Theatre for one of several Open Houses for community members to see the theater up close and meet the company and board of directors. Johnson supports Miles Square Theatre’s arts education programs and says that children who participate in art, theater and music programs “are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement”.
“Arts education improves students’ self-worth,” Johnson says. “When you see kids engaged in theater and dance education, you can see they’re more confident. Kids I’ve come in contact with are extremely empathetic and enthusiastic. And arts education embraces all children. There’s more we have to do to lobby for arts education.”
Mustard Seed School Principal Tom Postema, also in attendance, agrees arts education is important to his students who regularly attend Mile Square Theatre’s children’s shows.
“We’ve been bringing students from Mustard Seed for many years,” Postema says, “because Mile Square Theatre presents high-quality productions.”
Back in 2002, Mile Square Theatre’s Artistic Director Chris O’Connor founded Mile Square Theatre just before entering grad school at Rutgers University. The company bounced around Hoboken, performing wherever it could find a space until 2008 when it made a home at the Monroe Art Center in Hoboken. Still, O’Connor never lost sight of a permanent theater for the company.
“Before I moved to the New York area, I did a lot of work in regional theaters around the country and was influenced by the missions of those theaters,” O’Connor says, “which is to make a cultural impact through the production of challenging plays and to have meaningful educational outreach. Given Hoboken’s small geographical size and density, it seemed to me to be a place where one could really build that. Over the years, I’ve been able to convince others of the benefit of that vision, and it’s now really snowballing.”
The new theater on Clinton Street came about after O’Connor and company members realized it would be too pricey to renovate the space they rented at Monroe Arts Center.
“We then heard about the space at the Artisan and that its zoning agreement with the city was that they were mandated to give the space to an arts non-profit, which is what we are,” O’Connor says. “We studied the space very carefully before determining that it would suit our needs. The landlord at the time was looking for a non-profit, so it worked out for everybody.”
O’Connor shares decision-making with the Board of Directors and Associate Artistic Director Mark Cirnigliaro, who directed GOODNIGHT MOON; and became Associate Artistic Director in January after three years with the company.
“We’re all here because of Chris,” Cirnigliaro says. “Our desire is to be a vital cultural institution in Hoboken, and everyone is driven by Chris. This theater and its mission are his heart, his soul and his passion, which attracted everyone here.”
Mile Square Theatre is an Equity company and casts both Equity and non-Equity actors in its productions. The next show, CIRCLE, MOON, TRANSFORMATION, directed by O’Connor will be followed by the one-man show LONG GONE DADDY written and performed by playwright-in-residence Joseph Gallo, who also teaches playwriting, acting and speech at Hudson County Community College. Gallo has performed his one man show as a fundraiser for the theater, doing the show in salons (people’s homes) for 12-15 people.
“We bring the chairs,” Gallo says.
In July, Gallo performs his one-man show in the new theater.
“It’s a follow-up to my play, ‘My Italian Story’,” Gallo says.
Gallo’s written a baseball play, too, that has been featured in the company’s annual 7TH INNING STRETCH, a string of one-acts in honor of Hoboken’s claim to be the site of the first baseball game ever played. Since 2003, Mile Square Theatre has commissioned playwrights to write one-acts about baseball and 2016 marks the 14th year the company will do the show.
The shows at Mile Square Theatre go on thanks to the company’s fundraising efforts led by the Board of Directors and President Zabrina Stoffel who has been with Mile Square Theatre for five years. She says the company raised close to $500,000 for the new theater largely from individual donors, families and a few key business people.
“We did an Indiegogo campaign and raised $27,000,” Stoffel says. “We put up a video and prizes at every level. It was a month-long campaign. We also have a $375,000 loan we need to pay, so through fundraising we are selling naming rights. The lobby, and the stage are available, as is the building.”
The company plans to produce five profession productions a year, and its still growing. The next show for kids opens Sat, Apr. 30 for two performances, CIRCUS MINIMUS, “a one man circus in a suitcase.”
“What we want to do is build community,” Stoffel says. “I believe in building a public institution that will survive. Chris, Joe, Sarah, Chase, Mark – they have dreams, passion, vision and creativity. You have to have art in your life. It’s the light. It’s the thing that makes you smile unequivocally. Rich, poor, fat, skinny, disabled and able, we’re all equal sitting here and we all get to build and share a common experience.”
If you go
Sat, Apr. 30, 2 and 5 pm shows
CIRCUS MINIMUS, a One-Man Show in a Suitcase
Mile Square Theatre
1408 Clinton St, HOB