by Tom Dwyer
Artists have been coming to Hudson County for decades looking for an inexpensive place to do their art while becoming part of a caring community. In Union City, the 1,400-seat ParkTheatre has been creating high quality artistic programming since 1931. In 1983 the theatre became part of the Park Performing Arts Center—a private, not-for-profit arts center dedicated to presenting and producing programs for the diverse surrounding communities of urban New Jersey. Over the past twenty-one years the center has presented nationally recognized theatre, jazz concerts, well known folk musicians, educational programs, and its presentation of The Passion Play has drawn audiences from up and down the East Coast for the past 89 years. Father Kevin Ashe, a catholic priest, has been the guiding force at this renowned performing art center since 1983.
Father, what is your background and how did you get involved with the Park Performing Arts Center?
I arrived in Union City in 1982 as a priest for Holy Family church. And the theatre which was owned by the church was built in 1931 specifically to present The Passion Play. At the time, the theatre was about to be sold off. I realized that this building was completely unique and should be saved to be used for the betterment of the surrounding communities. By the way, this year is the 90th anniversary of The Passion Play being presented at the Park Theatre which will run from March 5th to April 2nd on weekends. In 1983 I became the director for the arts center. I established a not-for-profit organization, separated the operation from Holy Family Church, and all moneys generated at the Park Theatre remain at the theatre to help develop the arts. And to go back a bit, I was ordained in 1963 with the Newark arch diocese. For ten years I was a priest in a little town called Berkley Heights near Summit, New Jersey. And it was there that I started getting involved with the arts through the CYO. From Berkley Heights I went to Jersey City to St. Paul’s Church in the Greenville section. And I was very active not only in church activities but community activities as well.
Hudson County is a very diverse community. How does your organization reach out to the different nationalities?
Many of the events presented at the Park Theatre are geared toward the Spanish community. And not just that group but we serve a very diverse ethic community. Any performing art center mainly brings people in from the surrounding 15 miles. So we get people from Bayonne, Bergen County, Newark, and New York City. The Passion Play brings people from up and down the East Coast. It has become a tourist’s attraction. Our goal has always been to reach out to all nationalities in Hudson County. And coming up on January 9th will be a big event called Three Kings Day. This is little Christmas for the Hispanics, and we get so many people for this event that we always need to make sure we don’t overcrowd the place. This event is put on with a local woman’s group that hands out gifts to those who attend.
Two events, just to name a few at PPAC, have become very popular. . . The Passion Play, and The Cultural Thread. First, what is the Cultural Thread, and what is it about your presentation of The Passion Play that draws people from all over.
The Cultural Thread is a permanent exhibit and we have captured the history of the embroidering industry in this area. And this area was considered the embroidering capital of the world for many years. We get bus loads of people who come in and they are given a guided tour and a full explanation of the history of embroidering in this area, and then we take the group out to an embroidering factory near by, that’s in operation that day, and the group walks through and gets to experience people working and making a living doing embroidering. We get many school groups who are interested in the history of embroidering. We also have a very developed school group program. We just presented The Christmas Carol, where we had several thousand students attend. But The Passion Play is our biggest draw. Probably five to eight thousand people will attend this year’s 90’s anniversary presentation. Now Mel Gibson’s movie version of The Passion Play, last year had a negative impact on people coming to see our stage version. People decided to see the movie instead. But still people come here by the bus loads to see our passion play. And a little history. . . back in the 80’s we became very sensitive to the anti-Semitic references in The Passion Play. And passion plays historically can be anti-Semitic. So we took a very careful look at out script of The Passion Play. . . and doing so we became the model on how passion plays should be, and are presented. And we really didn’t have to change history. . . we just made our script more historical. And what we did very accurately was at that period of time Christ’s followers were Jewish and Christ was Jewish. And at the time Jerusalem was being occupied by the Roman’s and the Jews were not happy about this and there were insurgencies that took place. So our story is a much fuller explanation of the true history of what happened. We also added music in the 80’s to The Passion Play. And the music makes the drama move along in a much more dynamic way. We show a much fuller story where Mel Gibson’s version showed only a few hours in the life of Christ.
The PPAC 2005 calendar looks full of great programming. What are you most excited about, and where do you see your organization going in the future?
First of all, we are the only performing arts center in Hudson County that has survived for all these years. And it’s hard. But we get funding from the state, as well as donations. And almost all the performing arts centers in the state of New Jersey are in wealthy neighborhoods, except for the one in Newark. . . but they have the angel of Prudential Insurance helping them. We don’t have that here in Hudson County. And I doubt if Goldman Sachs, which is the new kid on the block, even knows that we exist. . . but I hope they find out. And for us to grow we depend on more funding from corporations. We really do have a great future. A few years back we received a few large grants. And because of those grants we now have six thousand feet of new space on top of the Park Theatre to run classes and events, and we have an elevator. So now we are handicap accessible as well. So I see 2005 as being a great year for us and the community if we continue to receive donations and grants.
How has your calling as a catholic priest affected your vision for PPAC?
Art is part of all our lives. And if you just walk through any of our old churches you see art all over the place, especially in the windows. Art is another way for people to express themselves. As a priest for over forty-one years I’ve been in homes from the very rich to the very poor. And there is one thing I’ve found in each home; there is always a piece of art. One home might have a Picasso, while another place might have something made out of plastic or something cut out of a magazine. From the earliest days art was being made, and art work I believe has always been a way for mankind to express them selves. We are all artists in the way we communicate with each other.
For more information on The Parks Performing Arts Center go to their website atwww.parkpac.org or call 201-865-6980 for general information and ticket prices.