Part of the thrill of being in the New Jersey theatre scene for over ten years is meeting so many artistic people and visiting as many of the different theaters as I possibly can. From professional to educational and community theaters, New Jersey offers it all. One of those is celebrating their 85th Anniversary season this year. The Barn Theatre in Montville, NJ actually started as the Mountain Lakes Dramatic Guild and made its debut in the State Theatre in Boonton with the play ICE-BOUND by Owen Davis on September 28, 1928. If we were to travel back to that time, we would see people dressed in evening attire sitting on backless benches inside of a renovated structure – the former estate-sized Chicken Coop!
As a highly respected amateur group, the Guild spent World War II entertaining troops at Fort Dix, performing benefits for local organizations, and presenting larger plays by traveling to High School auditoriums and other venues. The Guild had a strong bond with many members lasting together for twenty years.
It was 1953 when a member drove past a dilapidated red building in Parsippany that had once been a blacksmith shop and was vacant. While celebrating its Silver Anniversary, the Guild found a new home for just $50 a month and worked hard to convert it into a presentable theatre space. A small home for the group, people began to refer to the Little Theatre as The Barn because of the look of it from afar. But the little space was perfect for shows such as THE WOMEN, PICNIC and DETECTIVE STORY. It was during the 1957-58 season, when author Henry Denker attended a performance of TIME LIMIT (the first amateur production of his play); he was quoted as saying that the Barn’s production surpassed Broadway’s in many respects: a huge accomplishment for the small troupe.
By 1960, the land they were performing on was sold and once again they became a traveling gypsy theatre company until they bought land and begin to build their current home on Skyline Drive in Montville. It was April of 1966 when a production of THE MIRACLE WORKER co-directed by Jean Hooper (one of the 1928 founding members) inaugurated the new space. Ruth Hill (who had acted as a teenager in the original building) was in The Cast of the new Barn Theatre production. (It is believed she is the only member to have acted in all phases of the Barn history.) And the group was officially called The Barn Theatre Guild.
Barn Theatre members seem to stay around for years working on shows. One can see the same faces behind the scenes making it all come together, even as the decades have passed since arriving in their home in Montville. "There is a wonderful 'family feel' to The Barn Theatre," says Deputy Publicity Director Tom Schopper. "We have volunteers at The Barn who have been with us for upwards of 20, 30 and even 40 years, doing everything from appearing onstage, building sets, doing lights, volunteering on our Board of Directors, selling, coffee -- you name it. And with that kind of involvement, we often see more and more of their family members coming and joining our ranks of volunteers too. At times, we can have two and three generations of families working on our shows, which is really wonderful to see! And the longevity of the theatre and its volunteers also makes The Barn like a second home to a lot of us. So it feels like 'family' even when it isn't 'actual' family!"
The theatre has seen so many people come in and out of their doors. And while the 1940s saw subscribers staying around 100, today there are 1100 subscribers that are entertained by the wonderful seasons of plays and musicals. And the Barn has seen its share of alum go on to work in TV, film, and Broadway.
Laura Benanti: four-time Tony Award nominee and Tony Award winner for GYPSY - and currently starring on the NBC series "Go On"
Jane Krakowski: two-time Tony Award nominee and Tony Award winner for NINE (also a two-time Screen Actors Guild Award winner for ‘Ally McBeal’ and ’30 Rock’)
Vincent Curatola: most known as ‘Johnny Sack’ from the HBO drama “The Sopranos.”
Constantine Maroulis: Tony Award nominee for Rock of Ages
Scott Hart: producer of the upcoming Broadway musical A CHRISTMAS STORY