By GWEN OREL
Most arts organizations follow a school-year schedule: they are active from September to June; drop off a bit in late December, and are quiet as anything in the summer.
That’s one reason summer stock theater was once common everywhere. “Stock” usually referred to classic musicals and comedies, with an occasional mystery thrown in. The plays were rehearsed in a week or two and put up quickly. The company would rehearse during the day, while performing at night.
Not too many summer stock companies exist these days, outside of some Shakespeare theaters (which are not exactly stock, but perform on a similar schedule).
As a result, school-based actors are often twiddling their thumbs in the summer.
It was while sitting in a student-directed concert in June 2017 by Montclair’s School of Visual and Performing Arts (SVPA) that Betsy Harris had a brainstorm.
Why not have some kind of summer stock in Montclair? Montclair has so many arts organizations: Montclair Film, Jazz House Kids, Peak Performances, Opera Theatre of Montclair, Montclair Orchestra.
Why not create something to take advantage of the home-grown talent, and help SVPA grads gain more professional experience?
The brand new Montclair Theater Project aims to do just that.
Harris described the project to Montclair Local as a cross between summer stock and pop-up theater.
The organization is so new, it does not yet have a website, let alone an org chart. It held its first event, for an invited audience, at Montclair Film’s Cinema505 this past Saturday, Sept. 15.
Vanessa Dunleavy and Miranda Ferris Jones performed their as-yet-untitled musical/cabaret about best friends growing up, growing apart and growing back together, with musical accompaniment from SVPA Showcase Director Dave Maglione.
Neither woman is a graduate of SVPA, but Ferris Jones lives in Montclair and gives vocal coaching to SVPA students.
Montclair Film President and Chairman of the Board Bob Feinberg pointed out that the Montclair Theater Project presentation was the first on Cinema505’s new floor, after the flood of Aug. 11 damaged the old one.
Many Montclair arts stakeholders were present: Opera Theatre of Montclair General Director Mia Riker-Norrie. Montclair Orchestra President André Weker. Playwright/director Chris Hart, son of Moss Hart (now a Verona resident).
And several SVPA students and parents.
Harris said that the goal is to mix student talent with the professional talent in town. “I see so many kids go through SVPA, and they come back, and want to see what their colleagues are doing,” she said.
Deb Garrison, a SVPA parent supporter, said they decided to do Ferris Jones’ and Dunleavy’s show after they saw a living-room presentation of the piece.
“It kind of fell into our laps,” said Harris. “Montclair Theater Project can be more than just a summer stock theater. I know there are a lot of programs for elementary kids, middle school kids, high school kids. But what about the young artist who comes home from college?”
There will also be student-written plays and musicals, Garrison said.
The untitled show has its own Montclair origins: Ferris Jones said that it began after she moved to Montclair.
After the reading, Harris asked her if they wanted to be involved in this event.
Olivia Champeau, a freshman in MHS, and one of Ferris Jones’ students, is in the dance company at SVPA.
“We want this festival to happen, selfishly,” Dunleavy said, “so we can both be involved in it.”