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BWW Interview: Andrew DePrisco, Artistic Director of AXELROD PERFORMING ARTS CENTER

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BWW Interview: Andrew DePrisco, Artistic Director of AXELROD PERFORMING ARTS CENTER

While live theatre in New Jersey is being paused due to the Covid-19 outbreak, we continue our series of interviews with theatre professionals to learn more about how they are coping and their future plans. Andrew DePrisco, the Artistic Director of Axelrod Performing Arts Center told us about his background and his position.

Axelrod Performing Arts Center is a state of the art venue located in Monmouth Country. Located only minutes from downtown Asbury Park, it has free onsite parking. They offer main-stage musicals with casts and production teams from New York City and beyond as well as original concerts throughout the year. The Center fosters artistic excellence by showcasing varied and distinct cultural programs that enrich the imaginative, intellectual, and creative soul, while cultivating an appreciation of diverse communities through the pursuit of the arts.

DePrisco produces main-stage musicals and concerts and oversees Axelrod Performing Arts Center's educational and dance programs. He is the founder and president of Cabaret for Life, celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2020. For his work with CFL, Andrew was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a Theater Activist by NJACT in 2018. He is an award-winning director, producer and writer.

Broadwayworld.com appreciates Andrew DePrisco's answers to our questions and we are pleased to share them with our readers.

When did you first know you were destined to work performing arts?

When I was around ten years old, I started writing my first play, which I produced and directed in our backyard, casting the neighborhood kids. It was (and still is) the most successful play ever produced on Hamilton Ave in Neptune. I was wildly encouraged and finished writing the "trilogy" (take that Tom Stoppard!), though the others remain unproduced and hopefully will be discovered in a hundred years and produced on Broadway.

In college I studied "English," an odd name for a major in literature, and my focus was mainly drama. I assistant-directed plays and performed. I believed my trajectory to be as a playwright or as a director.

So, naturally, after college, I began my career in PET BOOK PUBLISHING. After two decades as a book editor and book author-Google my name with the word "dog" after it, and you'll see!-I returned to the theater. (I even won a New York Book Award and the Benjamin Franklin Award for my 2007 book Woof! A Gay Man's Guide to Dogs.)

My passion was always theater-plays and musicals, and opera-and I have an insatiable love of classical music (manifested by my ever-growing collection of around 7000 CDs).

We'd love to know about your educational background and how it influenced your career.

My education at Albright College in Reading, PA reinforced my love of language and theater. A liberal arts education teaches students "to think"-to question what they think they know, to approach problems from different perspectives, and to develop an open mind. Graduating with a dual major in English and Business, publishing was a safer (better paying!) choice.

Working in the theater is my second act, though I'd always been actively producing and directing local shows (mostly through Cabaret for Life) and a couple local high schools.

Tell us about your incredible work with Cabaret for Life (CFL).

We founded Cabaret for Life in 1995 and this year it is celebrating its 25th year. Our original focus was to raise funds for organizations that assist people living with HIV/AIDS, though our beneficiaries now include many other life-threatening causes. We raise funds through cabaret shows and sometimes fully staged revues and musicals and donate the proceeds to local organizations and a few national organizations like Broadway Cares and St. Jude's Children's Hospital. Cabaret for Life is a grassroots organization fueled by volunteers. Over the years we have donated over a half million dollars to about 25 different charities. We have collaborated with a number of Broadway composers over the years, including Sondheim, Herman, Strouse, Schwartz, LaChiusa and others. We've had many young volunteer performers go on to professional careers in the business, including Melissa Rauch, Jared Gertner, Gabrielle Stravelli, Kristen Piro, Michael McArthur and others.

Axelrod has become a gem in the NJ theatre scene. What are some of the challenges of your role as Artistic Director?

During normal times, regional theaters face many challenges but currently we are in uncharted waters. Since I began as the Artistic Director of the Axelrod, we've converted from a community theater venue with a good local following to a professional regional theater. The annual growth (from 2017 to 2019) has been astonishing-we've seen a growth spurt in box office and number of patrons averaging about 40% year over year. That's great news but it also presents fundraising, marketing and staffing challenges to meet the expectations of a fast-expanding audience. We've had many fantastic NY directors work at our theater and we have worked hard to meet their expectations, to help bring their visions to the stage. We don't have the resources of many larger, long-established regionals, but we are committed to providing a safe space where artists can explore, discover new truths and create an organic, original work of art.

Tell us about some of the Arts Center's recent successes.

Luis Salgado's magical production of Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical was a major artistic triumph, and the four audiences who saw it were awe-struck. Luis is a great artist who has been a frequent collaborator at the Axelrod. Had the production not closed after the first weekend because of the pandemic (and severely impacted the theater's financial security), it would have been a real success for us.

Last summer the Axelrod presented some great concerts, including a recreation of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, hosted by Lorna Luft, featuring powerhouse singers like Debbie Gravitte and Karen Mason with a full orchestra conducted by Mike Berkowitz, as well as a concert recreation of The Who's Tommy album starring Remember Jones, Asbury Park's up-and-coming soul/rock singer who's been touring the country with his fantastic 20-piece band.

Can you share some information about the team at Axelrod Performing Arts Center?

In 2018 the Axelrod PAC hired Gabriel Chajnik, a Julliard ballet master, to helm the creation of the Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater, our county's only professional ballet company. Gabriel has had the vision and drive to build the company and to mount fully staged ballets with live orchestras. We have commissioned original scores, hired world-class designers, and offered workshops and intensives for young artists. Currently Gabriel and our team and collaborating on the Axelrod Performing Arts Academy.

How are you staying connected to the community during the Covid-19 outbreak?

The Axelrod launched the NJ High School AXE Awards in response to the pandemic. This online scholarship competition has been created for high school thespians from Monmouth, Ocean and Middlesex Counties, many of whom did not get to perform their high school musicals this year due to the pandemic. Thanks to Cabaret for Life, the competition offers $5000 in scholarship money, in honor of Amy Fredericks, a local musician and teacher. Over 5000 people cast ballots online over the past couple of weeks, and Jersey Broadway diva, Laura Benanti will be announcing the winners on Saturday, June 6.

We have also launched an online fundraiser for Fulfill, our local food pantry that has been under great stress due to the pandemic.

What are some of your future plans for the Center?

We are currently launching Axelrod Performing Arts Academy, which is a seven-week online program with tracks in Musical Theater, Dance, Acting and Vocal. We have assembled a team of 50 artists to teach live classes online, including Tony Award winners Joanna Gleason, Faith Prince and Debbie Gravitte as well as Tony nominees Susan Egan, Bryce Pinkham, and Jeff Blumenkrantz and many other Broadway folk. We also have leading dancers from Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and NYC Ballet teaching in the Dance track. Classes begin June 29. More information is available at www.axelrodartscenter.com.

We will also be announcing an online concert series for the summer and fall.

Anything else, absolutely anything you want BWW NJ readers to know.

We are hopeful for the future of live theater-nothing can replace the experience of sharing the same air with great artists in the concert hall, theater, opera house or cabaret room. Like many other theaters in the country, we are working to reinvent ourselves for the time being, but we look forward to the day when we can return to the theater and present full-scale productions of musicals, ballets, and more.

Axelrod Performing Arts Center is located at 100 Grant Avenue, Deal Park, NJ 07723. Visit their web site at https://www.axelrodartscenter.com/ and call 732.531.9106.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Andrew DePrisco



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