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The Theater Project Shares Year-End Roundup

Here’s how Union, NJ’s hub for groundbreaking theater adapted to new realities in 2020.

The Theater Project Shares Year-End Roundup

This year brought seemingly endless challenges to the theater community-from the flashing lights of Broadway to grassroots theaters across America and the world. Since the COVID-19 shutdowns in March, independent theater companies have had to play by a whole new set of rules, and The Theater Project was certainly no exception. Here's how Union, NJ's hub for groundbreaking theater adapted to new realities in 2020, pivoting to digitally engage its patrons and the arts community at large.

Artistic Director Mark Spina notes that The Theater Project (TPP) was "off to a running start" in January 2020. Having just moved to their new home in Union, TPP was running their monthly new play reading series, Opening Nights in the Afternoon, and had just wrapped up their one-act play competition. They'd also recently launched Black Lives/Blue Lives: two monologues written by Steve Harper and Bill Mesce, Jr., that illustrate the unique perspectives on police/civilian dynamics.

Amidst it all, they were preparing for what would surely be a busy summer. "The Season that ALMOST Was" included plays reflecting on the New Jersey experience by three NJ playwrights: Mary Jane Walsh, Bill Mesce, Jr, and National Black Theatre resident playwright Tylie Shider.

But all that came to a halt when the pandemic hit, leading the organization to turn to other ways of getting out material. In April, TPP started hosting their Opening Nights in the Afternoon, readings of works from members of the Playwrights Workshop series, over Zoom.

From there, The Theater Project took their summer season online with a selection of new pieces adapting to theater's new "virtual reality," beginning with Marc Palmieri's Streaming Passion (April 26th). June through August brought four more virtual productions, including a Zoom series of the Black Lives/Blue Lives program - no doubt especially relevant given the social unrest this summer across America.

TPP also shifted their youth programs entirely online, providing opportunities for kids around New Jersey to showcase their talent from home. These included The ARK Program, which matched actors with children ages 6 to 13 on Zoom to provide reading enrichment, and Theater Project Jr., a summer workshop series culminating in a performance and a Young Playwrights event in the fall.

Autumn and winter saw the virtual production of Dracula, followed by A Cracked Christmas Carol. And this year, The Theater Project reached out to patrons for support while making safety a priority, adapting their yearly fundraiser, the 5K Run/Walk, to be self-scheduled and socially distanced.

As always, The Theater Project rounded out the year with their production of It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play. This holiday season, though, audience members gathered around their computer screens to experience the joy of this holiday tradition from the safety of their homes. A play that focuses on harnessing the power of community in difficult times, there was perhaps no better way to ring out this challenging year.

Despite all the obstacles this year has brought, TPP has risen to foster community through the arts, provide opportunities for playwrights and artists on the rise, and renewed their commitment to serving NJ with groundbreaking theater. Now, the organization looks ahead to 2021 with the hope they can put on their "season that almost was." Over a thousand tickets were sold to the company's online events in the last nine months. If nothing else, The Theater Project's unique summer and fall offerings have only further proven a universal truth: that people always need the arts, and even in the most trying times, will rise up to support them.

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