Two River Theater Embarks on Expansion

May 7, 2018
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Site preparation and construction on the Two River Theater’s new Center for New Work, Education and Design will begin this month. Image courtesy by Two River Theatre

By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen

RED BANK – The Two River Theater Company not only announced its 25th season, including two world premieres, it also revealed plans to break ground mid-May for the Center for New Work, Education and Design.

“Two River Theater has sustained an ambition to be one of the great theaters in the United States,” said artistic director John Dias. “We have long believed that a first-class theater needs first-class facilities.”

“Our new center will allow us to expand our programming and begin the next era of growth for Two River Theater,” Dias said.

The three-story center will be attached to the existing theater on the east side, currently on-site parking. Its footprint is 13,600 square feet with a total area of 36,300 square feet.

A rendering of the costume shop coming to Two River Theater

It includes artists’ writing spaces; offices for production and education staff and storage areas. Expanded spaces include wood, metal and paint shops with 32-foot tall ceilings, as well as climate-controlled costume and prop shops.

Also included are two rehearsal studios similar in size to the company’s primary performance spaces: the Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theater, a proscenium space that seats 350, and the Marion Huber Theater, a black box space that seats 99.

“Mostly, the major impulse was for new shops to support our primary mission: productions,” explained managing director Michael Hurst. “An analysis showed they were not adequate.

“We only have four spaces now,” he said. “If we’re rehearsing in the Marion and performing in the Rechnitz, all we have left is the lobby and the library, without commandeering the bathrooms. We need more breathing room.”

Hurst acknowledged there would be a parking shortage during construction, but the lot will have five more spaces when the new center is complete. The 11,000-square-foot Chevant building at 42 West St., directly behind Two River and the current home for its technical shops and storage, will be demolished along with the adjacent two-story house at 38 West St. to increase parking.

But it isn’t just all about the theater. It’s also all about the people the who walk in the door.

Both Dias and Hurst worked at The Public Theater in Manhattan, for 13 and 16 years respectively. Founded by Joseph Papp, it’s dedicated to nurturing both artists and audiences and creating a place of inclusion.

“It’s ingrained in Michael and John to engage the community, find innovative ways to connect, offer value added opportunities,” said John McEwen, executive director of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance. “That’s what’s so wonderful about nonprofit theaters: they are there to serve and engage, it’s not just transactional.”

For instance, the current production of “Dancing at Lughnasa” (through May 13) offered a screening of “The Quiet Man,” an Irish step dancing demonstration and TEDx talks about Irish lore, all for free.

Last summer theater classes for children on the autism spectrum were introduced. September saw the launch of First Monday Masters, participatory classes for high schoolers and adults taught by actors, directors, playwrights and designers. “A Little Shakespeare” series debuted five years ago and features an annual 75-minute production with and by high school students.

In 2010, Two River created a pipeline for developing new work and in 2015 produced the world premiere musical, “Be More Chill,” about a teenager who swallows a tiny supercomputer and becomes super cool. It’s become a social media hit, with Tumblr ranking it the No. 2 most talked-about musical on its platform after “Hamilton.” It makes its off Broadway debut in July at the Signature Center, coinciding with a vinyl release.

All this brings people to the West Side of Red Bank, said James Scavone, executive director Red Bank RiverCenter.

“The fine arts are thriving in Red Bank due to Two River and the Count Basie Theatre and, in general, have a tremendous impact on the economy with the people they bring into town,” he said. “It’s also heightening the awareness of the Red Bank name.”

Scavone didn’t have any hard figures, but the owner of Danny’s, an eatery a stone’s throw from Two River, does.

“Any night the theater is on, it gets hot earlier, around 5:30 or 6,” Danny Murphy said. “Business picks up by at least 20 percent.”

And he has no problem with the impending construction.

“They built that building beautiful for $21 million,” he said. “You can’t even hear the trains go by.”

A few hundred yards south of the theater, the long-empty Anderson Moving & Storage building will house the offshoot Sickles Market Provisions on the first floor with office space on three floors above it. And Triumph Brewing Company plans to open a restaurant in the West Side Lofts facing the theater.

“I’ve been hearing about expansion here for 49 years,” Murphy said. “Finally, the West Side is coming alive.”

25TH ANNIVERSARY SEASON

“Pamela’s First Musical” World Premiere
Sept. 8 – Oct. 7

Based on Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winner Wendy Wasserstein’s (“The Heidi Chronicles”) 1996 children’s book of the same name. Aunt Louise is taking Pamela, who feels like an outsider, to her first Broadway musical. Book co-written with Tony Award-winner Christopher Durang (“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”), music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel. Ten-time Tony Award nominee Graciela Daniele directs, with music direction by Kevin Stites.

“King Hedley II”
Nov. 10 – Dec. 16

The fifth of August Wilson’s 10 plays, known as The American Century Cycle, to be staged here. Directed by Obie Award-winner Brandon J. Dirden (Broadway’s “Jitney,” TV’s “The Americans”) who has also acted here in several plays. Set in 1985, it’s a sequel to “Seven Guitars,” four decades earlier and produced here in 2015.

“Noises Off”
Jan. 12 – Feb. 3

Staged by Two River 20 years ago and included the season as a nod to its past, Michael Frayn’s play is a backstage farce-within-a-farce. Mayhem ensues as a third-rate touring theater troupe rehearses and then performs the ill-fated ‘Nothing On.” Sarna Lapine, whose credits include the 2017 Broadway revival of “Sunday in the Park with George,” directs.

“Theo” World Premiere, commissioned by Two River Theater
Feb. 23 – March 2

Written by Martin Moran, who performed his solo plays “The Tricky Part” and “All the Rage” here in 2014. Theodore returns to his Catskills home he left years ago when his 70-year-old mother’s health deteriorates. His sister is caring for her and her transgender child. Directed by Carolyn Cantor.

“The Belle Of Amherst”
April 13 – May 5

Written by William Luce and directed by co-founder

Robert Rechnitz, a former professor of American Literature at Monmouth University for 35 years. This one-woman show, featuring Maureen Silliman as Emily Dickinson, draws from her poems, diaries and letters, offering a window into the life of one of America’s greatest poets.

“Oo-bla-dee”
June 8 – 30

Writer Regina Taylor, she won the 2000 American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award for this play with music about a female bebop band of African-American musicians traveling the country at the end of World War II. This is the first major revival of the play, which includes new music by two-time Obie-winning jazz composer Diedre L. Murray (“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”). Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson (“Jitney,” here and on Broadway) directs.

FAMILY SHOWS

“Journey To Oz: A Wizard Of Oz Story”
Nov. 23 – 25

Written and directed by Christopher Parks, music composition/sound design by Josh Totora. Inspired by L. Frank Baum’s original stories, the audience is invited on an interactive journey to Oz with Dorothy as part of the cast singing, dancing and acting alongside professional actors. For age 2 and older.

“A Little Shakespeare”
Jan. 25 – Feb. 2

The 6th season, a 75-minute version of a Shakespeare play is performed by local high school students. Title TBA. For ages 9 and older.

Visit tworivertheater.org for more details or call 732-345-1400.


This article was first published in the May 3-10, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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