The Early Years — 1963-1971

The Theatre is founded in Cape May

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, now one of America’s largest and most respected classic theatres, can trace its origins to a humble summer-stock company in the resort town of Cape May, N.J. In 1963, the Cape May Playhouse hired a veteran actor and director named Paul Barry to the position of Artistic Director, and in August of that same year, he staged The Taming of the Shrew.  That production began, in essence, the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, a company that Mr. Barry went on to lead for 28 years.

The company’s early seasons, by all accounts, were tumultuous ones.  Mr. Barry, who as a young actor had taken on small roles in Hollywood movies like Brigadoon and The Bridges at Toko-Ri, had returned primarily to stage work, choreographing fights for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival.  The Cape May Playhouse, originally a vaudeville stage built in 1902, had no history of profits, no air conditioning, and an audience inclined toward beach apparel.  “To attempt the classics here seemed madness,” Mr. Barry wrote several years later.

Yet, attempt the classics he did, and in 1963 and 1964, he produced numerous plays, all running a single week.  Legend has it that the actors changed roles so often that some took to writing their lines on the backs of their hands or on the stage props.  Still, the audience slowly began to grow, and by 1965 the company was on solid footing. In addition, as each summer season concluded, Mr. Barry would take many of the actors to Boston, where for several years, the ensemble performed as the Boston Herald Traveler Repertory.

Among the better-known alumni of the Theatre’s Cape May years are the actor Christopher Lloyd and the renowned lighting designer David Hersey. Margery Shaw, who began her 24-year career with the company in 1966, said, “It was an insane and extraordinary place.  The Shakespeare Festival was born in Paul’s heart.  He was one of a long tradition of old-time Actor-Manager types that just don’t exist anymore.”

“The Cape May Playhouse was in pretty bad condition,” recalls Davis Hall, an actor who also began his long career with the Theatre in 1966.  “It was a Victorian relic with a leaky roof.  I remember doing Macbeth.  I was playing Donalbain, and we had a huge storm that pounded the building; the lightning was cracking, and the roof leaking a bit, but it was all so perfect for the play, and the audience seemed electrified.”

By 1968, the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival (NJSF) appeared well on its way to becoming a fixture of the New Jersey arts scene.  The Daily Variety was reviewing the plays, Time Magazine and The New York Times had given the company favorable press, and audience members came from as far afield as Virginia. 1968, however, turned out to be “a catalogue of horrors,” as Mr. Barry would later write. The summer was unseasonably hot, and without air conditioning, the aging Playhouse was an oven.  What little local funding the Theatre had procured was suddenly withdrawn, and then with equally little notice, local authorities decided to demolish the Playhouse, leaving the Shakespeare Festival without a home and with rising debt.

From Cape May to Hotel Lafayette

In the fall of 1968, the company mounted a touring production of Hamlet. There was no summer season subsequently in 1969, though with the help of a small federal grant, a production of Spoon River Anthology toured in the fall.  When the federal funding ran out, it appeared that NJSF might fold, but in late 1969, the owner of Cape May’s historic Lafayette Hotel offered up the use of its ballroom for a 1970 season. Money was raised to begin rehearsals only to have disaster strike once more. Just days before opening, it was announced that the Lafayette was also doomed to demolition. A handful of shows, including Man of La Mancha, were produced there, but it was a serious blow.  The last of the Theatre’s financial supporters simply gave up. Homeless still in 1971, the company once again hit the road with a tour of The Rivalry. Then in 1972, Mr. Barry received a call from James Lee, the head of the Drew University Theatre Department.

Mr. Lee was inquiring as to whether any of his students might be able to intern with NJSF.  “I told him we were currently without a home and asked if Drew might want to take us on as a residency,” remembered Mr. Barry in a 2012 interview.  “I went up there to meet with the President of the University.”

From Ocean to Forest — 1972-1981

Thus began a partnership that has endured for fifty years. A press conference held in February, 1972 at the then Governor Morris Inn in Morristown, featured Mr. Barry, Drew President Robert F. Oxnam, and assorted Congressmen and State Legislators. Mr. Barry unveiled a ten-week summer season of five plays, including The Taming of the Shrew and Troilus and Cressida, all of which would be staged between July and September, in what one local columnist termed the “intimate confines” of the University’s Bowne Gymnasium, which had, several years earlier, been converted into a very eccentric performance space.

Paul and his wife and company actress, Ellen Barry, soon became fixtures on the Drew campus. Ticket and subscription sales were brisk in the company’s new home, and President Oxnam’s successor, President Paul Hardin, approved the first expansion of the Festival’s season to eight productions over a span of 21 weeks.  By 1976, when the company celebrated its 100th production with a “birthday party” hosted by Governor Brendan T. Byrne, it boasted a 23-week season, the support of more than 25 corporations, and funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.  Growth continued through the late 1970’s, and in 1978, a new subscription system boosted annual ticket sales by 55%.  The company was thriving artistically as well.  In its first seven years in its new home at Drew, NJSF earned 27 awards for excellence from the New Jersey Drama Critics Association.

Bowne Gymnasium was a state-of-the-art sport facility when it was built in 1909.  By the time it was rigged to function as a theatre/lecture space in the 1960’s, it was already starting to deteriorate. The original second-floor running track remained intact and was converted into one-row balcony seating.  An iron spiral staircase originated in what was originally the men’s locker room and ran up through the audience space and into the balcony. The men’s locker room was converted into the men’s dressing room, and the pool in the basement was emptied and converted into a prop and scene shop. Given the fact that the pool floor sloped into a deep end, building scenery there was a true challenge. The women’s dressing room was built on stilts and hovered above the deep end of the pool. The steps leading up to the stage were treacherous, the seats in the Theatre all had small desktops attached, and people seated in the balcony had to contend with loud air conditioning units that were interspersed between the seats. All scenery had to be constructed around large air ducts that ran right down the middle of the upstage wall of the stage.  In order to hang many of the lights, technicians had to enter dangerous and dark crawl spaces in the ceiling above the audience area. Reggie, the ghost of a young man who reputedly drowned in the pool in the early 1900’s, had taken up residence in Bowne since the time of his early demise.  He continues to share the building with the artists to this day.

Challenges on the Horizon — 1982-1990

Paul Barry becomes the first American to direct Shakespeare’s entire canon

Success continued through the early 1980’s, but things were quietly shifting on the national theatre scene. Funding for the arts was no longer flush and new levels of accountability were being imposed on arts organizations, especially those competing for state and federal funding.  In addition, the Technological Revolution was starting to change the ways that businesses operated.  New operational tools and marketing strategies were being devised and employed, especially in light of the fact that there were suddenly many more at-home entertainment activities competing for the public’s attention – video games, films on video, and home computers.  In addition to declining audiences and diminished financial support, NJSF was facing additional challenges, the most serious being the Theatre’s quickly deteriorating performance space — the old Bowne Gymnasium built in 1909.

By the late 1980’s, NJSF’s monetary situation was once again precarious and adversely affecting all aspects of the institution.  In 1987, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts significantly reduced funding for the Festival and recommended to the Board that it bring in an outside consultant to assess the Theatre’s future.  The Board did so, and the consultant urged a change in direction.  Tensions grew between the Barry leadership team and Trustees.  Several years of intermittent negotiations eventually led to Mr. Barry’s resignation in 1990, leading to a period of uncertainty about the Theatre’s future.  “I remember riding home on the train one night after a Board meeting, talking to another Trustee, and he was convinced the Theatre would not survive,” remembers long-time Trustee, Michael Schlesinger.

Brave New Worlds — 1991-1996

New leadership at the Festival

Mr. Schlesinger, along with many other Trustees, felt it was imperative to save the State’s only Shakespeare theatre.  Determined to keep NJSF alive, they launched a nationwide search to identify a new Artistic Director.  In October of 1990, the search resulted in the hiring of 34 year-old Bonnie J. Monte, who had served as the Associate Artistic Director of the famed Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts under Nikos Psacharopoulos.  Ms. Monte recalls a rigorous selection process in which she underwent 17 separate interviews, authored an extensive “treatise” on her vision and strategies for revitalizing the organization, and she culminated her bid for the job with a two hour oral presentation for the entire Board. With a unanimous vote of confidence behind her, she began work on October 15th of 1990, and encountered a daunting set of challenges.

The Theatre’s administrative “headquarters” was a windowless, out-of-use science lab; the organization’s debt was upwards of $300,000; and the company’s bank account held little more than $500. There was literally no money to operate.  Replacing a staff of ten with a staff of three; changing the company’s contract status with the actor’s union; engaging in emergency fundraising; curtailing the final show of the 1990 season, and imposing strict cost-cutting measures (cutting the budget from $800,000 to $500,000), Ms. Monte and Mr. Michael Stotts, the new Managing Director, basically started from scratch.  “Mike and I realized that in order to resuscitate NJSF we had to re-invent it to a large degree,” said Ms. Monte. “We immediately set about changing almost every aspect of the institution except its primary mission — its excellent raison d’être that Mr. Barry had established many years earlier — that basic mission was sacred.”

In short order, Ms. Monte crafted a new mission statement that included a strong and equal focus on education; designed a new logo and new brand for the company; worked with several loyal foundations to furnish funds to repay a portion of the Theatre’s debt and to keep operating; and in some cases, the team managed to have some debt forgiven. NJSF’s first season under Ms. Monte, launched in June 1991, reflected one of her most significant artistic reforms — a move from the repertory system of performance to limited three-week runs of five shows opening back to back.  No longer did one stage design have to function for all the shows, and casting became far more flexible, providing opportunities for a larger and more varied company of artists. That first “Monte season” opened with The Tempest and climaxed with an all-star production of Twelfth Night featuring Elizabeth McGovern, Laila Robins, Edward Herrmann, Paul Mullins and James Michael Reilly. It was a triumphant debut season. Reviews were ecstatic, the audience grew, and in that first year of new leadership, the company managed to close with a budget surplus. Ms. Monte also firmly established a mandate for non-traditional casting in her first season, endeavoring to create a far more diverse company of artists, conveying her determination to send the message that the classics are for everyone. Many significant challenges remained however, including a dire need to rebuild the institution’s reputation, the lack of support facilities, and the ongoing, physical decline of Bowne Theatre.

Momentum built through the early 1990’s and much good work was accomplished both onstage and behind the scenes. Most notable was the tremendous expansion of the education initiatives — both in-school and on-site programs at the Theatre flourished. A record of fiscal responsibility was established, the company’s reputation began to repair itself, and the artistic programming was reaching new heights of excellence.  However, both Ms. Monte and Mr. Stotts recognized that the institution’s potential was limited by its deteriorating facility and the lack of viable technical systems for creating world-class productions. While the quality of work from an acting and directing standpoint was exemplary, the stage and support spaces were a liability and an impediment.

And so, just three years into her tenure, Ms. Monte, Mr. Stotts and the Board began work on a major capital campaign to create a state-of-the-art performance space for NJSF.  Engaging in such an endeavor was the first of a number of very ambitious campaigns that have occurred under Monte’s leadership and that have contributed to the organization’s remarkable transformation over the past three decades. Convincing both the NJSF and Drew Boards of the campaign’s necessity was not an easy task. Two incidents occurred that helped create unanimous recognition of the urgent need for a new space. One of the most distressing problems with the nearly 100 year-old building was its lack of accessibility. After actor Christopher Reeve’s accident, he was no longer able to attend shows at NJSF to see his wife Dana perform. The building was virtually inaccessible for wheelchair patrons. Dana and Chris became strong and vocal advocates for the creation of a facility that would not only accommodate wheelchair patrons and wheelchair artists, but that would address all types of accessibility. Then in 1996, a huge summer storm hit during a performance of Richard III. A particularly strong thunderclap provided the tipping point and a portion of the roof above the audience started to disintegrate. This alarming occurrence happily did not result in any injuries, but it did finally result in full and strong support for a campaign to massively renovate/expand the performance space.

Homeless — 1997

A smorgasbord of venues as Bowne transforms into the Kirby

With a strong Board, a determined staff, and the tremendous help of Drew’s President and Vice President of Administration at the time, Governor Thomas H. Kean and Margaret Howard, as well as many dedicated people too numerous to name, NJSF engaged in a $7.5 million campaign to expand and completely renovate the old Bowne Theatre. In what is known as “the 1997 homeless season” the company managed to continue operations in various makeshift spaces while the building was undergoing its transformation. Bringing the renovation in on time and on budget was a major accomplishment, and in June of 1998, The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, a state-of-the-art, jewel of an intimate 308-seat performance space opened to great fanfare and provided a massive sea change for the institution.

A Kingdom for a Stage — 1998-2001

New life, new home, new name

The new Kirby Theatre allowed for a significant expansion of the performance season into the fall and early winter months.  The company was able to produce as many as seven Main Stage shows and by 1998, the Theatre’s annual budget had quadrupled from the 1991 figure of $500,000 to $2.0 million.  The company continued to grow and thrive, but again, many challenges remained, not the least of which were continual “branding” struggles.  After much thought, debate and consultation, the staff and Board decided to change the name of the institution in an effort to dispel the widespread misperceptions caused by the word “festival” in the Theatre’s name.

The Outdoor Stage — 2002

Family-friendly theatre under the stars

2002 became a banner season when in April of that year, the Theatre was awarded a prestigious $1.0 million Strategic Partnership Grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to aid in strengthening the company’s artistic impact and in expanding its education work. With a portion of that funding, the Theatre was able to create a groundbreaking residency partnership with Saint Elizabeth University in Convent Station. In late July of 2002, the Outdoor Stage premiered at the beautiful, hillside Greek amphitheatre on the Saint Elizabeth campus with a production of Menander’s 2,300 year-old play The Grouch. Within a very short time, the Outdoor Stage became an annual tradition for thousands of family theatre-goers, and a favorite destination for audiences of all ages on warm summer evenings. Over its 20-year history, the Outdoor Stage audience has quadrupled, playing now to hundreds of people each evening every summer.

What's Past is Prologue — 2002-2011

New life in our new home

In 2003, the company renamed itself The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, providing a more clarified identity. The first decade of the 21st century brought about a continual ascent for the company’s national and international profile, and a significant expansion of the education programs, both in terms of number and type of offerings, as well as geographical reach. Since its inception in 1997, Shakespeare LIVE!, the company’s flagship education project, has grown to be the mid-Atlantic region’s largest Shakespeare touring company for students, having now reached over 700,000 students since its launch. At the time, 12 different education programs were offered for constituents of all ages. In 2008, the company was invited to Athens, Greece to conduct ShakeFest: Teacher Training Program — the Theatre’s first international gig.

An update on the most recent decade will be added soon.