Vanguard Theater Company managing director Jessica Sporn, left and founder Janeece Freeman Clark are excited to finally open the theater’s location on Bloomfield Avenue. (Diego Jesus Bartesaghi Mena)

By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

After a long year of renovations and setbacks due to the coronavirus pandemic, Vanguard Theater Company will open the doors to its new theater on the weekend of June 4.

In March 2020, Janeece Freeman Clark signed the lease of The Old Mogul Theatre, a 1920s-style hall located on 180 Bloomfield Ave.

That’s part of the Fourth Ward, Montclair’s most diverse neighborhood, on point with the company’s long-standing mission: Clark and fellow performer Daryl Stewart founded Vanguard in 2015 to bring people of diverse backgrounds together, to let them share their varied experiences through a common love of theater. 

“That commonality allows us to break down walls, break down stereotypes,” Clark said. “We like to create a safe space where people feel like they can come in and unapologetically be their true selves.”

Since Vanguard’s inception, it’s used a variety of spaces — among them, the Union County Performing Arts Center, the South Orange Performing Arts Center and local schools. The Old Mogul was to become a space of Vanguard’s own — a dream deferred when the pandemic prompted lockdowns just after the lease was signed. 

The space has a lot of history. 

According to Jessica Sporn, managing director of Vanguard, The Old Mogul Theatre was built to be a social area and dance hall. Over time it was used as a social club and a gathering place for African American chauffeurs who would gather while they were waiting in between gigs. 

“We feel we’re really honoring this place,” Sporn said. “That’s really welcoming all people.” 

Township historian Mike Farrelly previously told Montclair Local the building was owned for most of its history by Charles Rosenberg. A second-floor space was the studio of artist Don Miller, where he painted the iconic Martin Luther King Freedom mural now on display at the MLK Memorial Library in Washington D.C. The building was later sold to  the current owners, the Mirza family. From 2015 through 2017, it was used for concerts. Now, after renovations over the last year, it’ll see performances once again. 

The space will have a mix of modern and vintage touches, including some of its original brick walls. The mixture, Clark said, is “just so who we are, in terms of our mission of diversity. So, we think that the place really matches who we are and we’re just excited to invite people in.”

The space will also feature upgrades for the COVID era: brand new HVAC air filters, self-flushing toilets, automatic soap dispensers and hand-sanitizing stations throughout the venue. Vanguard will continue funding a COVID-19 compliance officer’s position.

Much of that is made possible by grant funding in the pandemic, including a $37,500 grant from the New Jersey Arts & Culture Recovery Fund of the Princeton Area Community Foundation for renovations at the new location, and $18,900 through the New Jersey State Council of the Arts’ COVID Critical Needs Program,

Even though the space can hold up to 250 people, the first few events will have limited capacity, at about 50%. Clark and Sporn anticipate expanding to full capacity as the year goes on.

“The last thing we want is for someone to feel like, because they came to something indoors here, they put themselves at risk,” Sporn said. “So, we’d rather err on the side of being very cautious.” 

Even though June 4 will be the grand opening, Vanguard is planning a month-long opening with events each weekend.

That starts with the screening of Jason Rober Brown’s “Songs for a New World,” which the company has been filming with the help of professional actors in different locations around New Jersey for the last eight months. 

“We’ve put together this really beautiful presentation of this show,” Clark said. “We are looking at it with fresh eyes because we want to make sure that it really resonates with our audience in terms of the themes.”

In the second week, Vanguard’s youngest actors will presenting a screening of “Shrek Junior” that the company has also been filming on location for the last six months.

“We’re going to start off with some screenings to get everyone’s feet wet,” Clark said. “So we want to ease our audience into a live performance.” 

In the third week, Vanguard is partnering with Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation, Montclair African-American Heritage Foundation and Montclair’s NAACP chapter for the first-ever town-wide Juneteenth celebration. This will be the first in-person event.

“We’re thrilled to be partnering with these fabulous organizations to just kind of bring more light to what this day is all about,” Clark said. “We are hoping that it’s going to be an enlightening and educational and inspirational evening with lots of discussion in addition to performances.” 

And the final week of June, Vanguard will be premiering a piece that was conceived, written and performed by a group of young students between the ages of 15 and 22 called “Walk in my Gravity.”

“It’s a song cycle, which is essentially a group of songs that all share a common theme,” Clark said. “A lot of the songs are written about a lot of their personal experiences with issues such as race, ethnicity, gender, grief. They’re going to take the audience on a walk through their gravity hoping to share the weight.” 

The performance is part of the VTC (Vanguard Theater Company) Next Program, which aims to inspire the next generation of behind-the-scenes theater artists. 

“We wanted to create a platform for them to tell their stories, as opposed to just recycling [other material],” Clark said. “There’s nothing wrong with it, but we also want to give our young people voices to write their own stories.”

Vanguard is also planning to do community-wide productions where families can join together and be on stage. 

It’ll be an opportunity for “members of the community who are just maybe looking to get their feet wet and try out theater, even if it’s not something that they do,” Clark said. 

Clark as a Black actor, said she’s seen a lack of diversity in all aspects of theater — from who gets cast for a show to who’s in the audience.

“I wanted to create a space for myself, for my children, for the greater community where you don’t have to have those walls up,” Clark said.

An earlier version of this post described the theater’s capacity as 400; that had been the capacity prior to renovations. The figure cited above, 250, reflects new information provided by Vanguard.

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