"Asking if I have a favorite production is like asking if I have a favorite child," says Carl Wallnau, Producer at Centenary Stage Company and Chair of Fine Arts at Centenary College in Hackettstown. "They're all fun for different reasons. Each one is different." If so, the productions, in the aggregate, must resemble a large, blended family. As a professional equity theater, Centenary produces events that range from dramas to musical ensembles.
Shepherding these events through hectic production stages requires a healthy dose of sangfroid. Wallnau greets a request for anecdotes with a wry response. "There are no fun stories," he insists. "Only tales of pain and suffering." Nonetheless, within a matter of minutes he segues into a tale of averted disaster. During a showing of The Tillie Project, a drama based on transcripts of a murder trial, the power failed three times. He stifles a laugh, "Some people thought it was Tillie Smith's ghost."
Local theater would seem to provide ample opportunities for chaos. But first the shows must get into production, and production requires money. Like many non-profit theaters, CSC performs its own juggling act. "Not-for-profits can't expect to survive off ticket sales," explains Catherine Rust, Program Director for Women Playwrights Series and Director of Theater Appreciation. "Centenary has provided the physical structure, but we depend on grants and volunteers. We write grants like crazy. We do our own marketing. We also barter. "
Funding sends production into high gear. Of the ensuing work, Catherine says, "We build sets from bottom up. We hire set and lighting designers. We audition in New York. The rehearsal process is very disciplined. It is a different level of commitment from school productions. We're not here for the social process."
Every production gets thirty hours allowable equity time, with the last week typically dedicated to working out technical requirements, leaving scarce time for acting rehearsals. Seemingly insignificant changes can throw a monkey wrench into the works. A new bus schedule cut a swath through the ranks of New York talent able to travel to northern New Jersey, reducing the list of actors primarily to those who own a car. And traffic jams really gum up the works. One accident on I-80 led to a three-hour delay. Staff held the curtain for over two hours, and served coffee and cake to the patrons."That's the reality of live theater," Mr. Wallnau says.
Fortunately, talented professionals want to tackle the commute. Some provide additional demo performances at local schools; others lead free workshops. The effort cuts both ways. CSC serves as a resource for professionals, offering workshops in stage combat, farce, acting styles, and movement. The Women's Playwright Series helps budding playwrights develop their own work.
Success fosters optimism. In 2010, Centenary Stage Company migrated to the new state-of-the-art facilities of the David and Carol Lackland Center, a thirty-million-dollar facility that also houses the college’s NPR Affiliate radio station, WNTI, and the college’s Comcast-licensed television production studio in Hackettstown. The center is the first on the campus to be named in honor of an alumna, Carol Burgess Lackland (class of 1954 and a Centenary College President’s Circle Member), and for her husband, David Lackland, a Centenary College trustee.
Native New Jerseyans, the Lacklands have lived in Watchung for the past fifty years. An accomplished pianist from an early age, Carol Lackland was able to further her education through the generosity of a scholarship and an anonymous private donor. At Centenary, she branched out with a few classes in radio that gave her the confidence to “march right into New York” and get a job at CBS, and subsequently at ABC, where she enjoyed “a very nice career”, working with such notable radio-television personalities Mike Wallace and Bill Cullen. David Lackland, a businessman with a musician’s heart (he plays the violin), graduated from Lehigh University and spent years developing residential properties as part of Lackland Brothers, Inc.. With a love of the arts, the Lacklands ignited the mission for the new facility with a generous lead gift to the college, which was matched by many generous donations over the next several years by alumni, corporations, businesses and residents.
Charged with filling the new facility with a vital array of events, the Centenary Stage Company now provides a program of non-stop performing arts events for patrons from all over New Jersey, as well as Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. The facility has proven to also be a boon for the college’s growing theatre degree program (which doubled in size in 2010), offering state–of-the-art training for the student population, who work alongside professionals in design, management and technical aspects on productions. Students are also heavily involved in the education outreach program that CSC manages, called the Young Audience Series, which has toured to elementary, middle and high schools from Bergen County to the Pinelands since its inception in 2010.
A cadre of over eighty volunteers keep the Front of House in order during performances at the Center, and a dedicated Advisory Board keep the Centenary Stage Company in action. Advisory Board member Bob Eberle credits WRNJ Radio’s President and General Manager, Norman Worth, who gave him a pair of tickets one year, with introducing him to CSC. Now a dedicated advocate for all things Centenary, Eberle recently testified, “My season subscription to Centenary exposed me and my family to plays and events that we may not have seen otherwise. It rekindled our love of live theater."
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