Middlesex County's Plays-in-the-Park is a unique partnership that represents better than 54 years of unparalleled government initiative, artistic excellence and community spirit. Fifty two years ago, a small group of devoted community theater volunteers enthusiastically sought a place to produce plays during the summer months. They contacted the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders in the hopes of finding financial support for their endeavors.
Although funds did not exist for the construction of a new theater building, there was money budgeted for a storage shed. A creative compromise was reached, allowing the shed to be used as a theater in the summer and for storage in the winter. A tree-lined grove in Roosevelt Park was chosen as the site and Plays-in-the-Park officially opened in 1963. Popularity grew, and eventually the shed became a permanent home with the addition of a scenic shop and dressing rooms. Attendance soared and by the mid-1970's more than 150,000 people came to the free theater each year, making Plays-in-the-Park an important part of summer in Middlesex County.
All seemed lost, however, when on July 24, 1975, a fire in an adjacent garbage can destroyed the wooden building, burning it to its concrete foundation. But theatrical tradition demands that the show must go on (in this case "Man of La Mancha") and so work began the very next day. Mobile trailers were brought in to finish the 1975 season. Eventually County funds were met by dollars from the Green Acres Commission and the new Roosevelt Park Amphitheater opened in 1978.
Since then it is estimated that more than 1 million people have attended performances of Plays-in-the-Park. Our amphitheater features the latest lighting and sound equipment, and our shows are staffed by working professionals in the theater. Currently, we produce three full-scale Broadway-style musicals each summer (complete with a live Union orchestra), an indoor Children's Musical in the fall, and our continuing production of "JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT" each winter at the State Theatre in New Brunswick.
Plays-in-the-Park has been cited for the excellence of its theatrical productions, making it the pre-eminent Community Theater in Middlesex County. The lighting, scenic and costume designs of each show are generally based on the Broadway originals or National Touring Companies, adapted and recreated by working professionals.
During the fall the backstage area is transformed into an intimate 150 seat "black box" performance space where a Children's Musical has been presented for what will be our 23rd season. All ten performances (2 each Sunday or Saturday for 2 or 3 weekends) have been completely sold out.
December brings the traditional Winter Show at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, now in it's 21st season. These productions give the Plays-in-the-Park staff and designers an opportunity to work hand-in-hand with Union crews in a professional venue, utilizing state-of-the-art equipment.We are proud to present our annual production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” during the holiday season!
Plays-in-the-Park is also well respected for its outstanding service to the Community. Each summer for over 20 years the theater runs Kids-in-the-Park, a creative drama workshop opened to children grades 2 through 5, ages 8 to 11. It is housed in the mini-amphitheater in Warren Park, Woodbridge. Youngsters attend two different workshops, making the total attending each summer 250. At the end of each session a performance is given for an audience of parents and friends.
At Roosevelt Park, high school students participating at the Summer Arts Institute in New Brunswick regularly attend Park performances. The theater has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the Cerebral Palsy Institute. The accessibility of the outdoor theater setting offered barrier-free entry for the Center's wheelchair patients long before Federal Legislation made such access mandatory. Senior Citizens and Veterans' Homes have also been regular patrons, bringing the joys of live theater to members of the Middlesex County population that are often unable to attend other cultural events. In fact, Plays-in-the-Park has been the introduction to theater for countless families; Children grow up inspired by the productions and with an appreciation for the Arts. Some eventually wind up on the stage; others take their families and children. The minimal admission charge instituted several years ago to offset costs makes theater-going a very affordable event, less than the cost of a movie ticket. Kids are always admitted free, and there are discounts for seniors.
For these efforts, the theater received the Class One Award for 1991 of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council Dorothy Mullen Award and was the recipient of the National Association of Counties 1991 Achievement Award. We continue to grow and experiment with new formats, constantly trying to improve the product and the experience itself. Recent seasons have brought major changes and improvements to our sound system, lighting equipment and seating policies.
It also bears mentioning that many of the performers who got their start at PLAYS-IN-THE-PARK have gone on to successful professional careers. The complete list is too numerous, and our apologizes to anyone not mentioned, but among are alumnus in the professional world we list Michael Schweikardt (Set Design: James Taylor tour), Timothy Gleason (Phantom B’way), Amy Toporek (Hairspray tour), Lorinda Haver (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes B’way), Daisy Hobbs (Aladdin B'way), Andrew Hodge (Cats tour), Russell Fischer (Jersey Boys B’way), Billy Piscopo (Jesus Christ, Superstar tour), Veronica Kuehn (Mamma Mia B’way, Xanadu B’way, Avenue Q), Susan Santoro (Cats B’way, A Chorus Line B’way), Coleen Sexton (Jekyll & Hyde video), Casey Muha (Chicago tour, On The Town Paper Mill), Jenny Hill (Seussical B’way, Spamalot B’way), Art and Jackie Neill (Pirates tour) , Megan Bussiere (Roar of the Greasepaint) Andrew Varella (Les Miz) Thom Warren (Lion King) and Jonathan Schwartz (The Fantasticks - Off B'way, B'way - Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and Aladdin B'way) as well as David Copperfield, Robert Hegyes and Brittany Murphy.
If the crowds on summer nights are any judge, then Plays-in-the-Park is quite successful indeed.
Freeholders David B. Crabiel, Director and Stephen J. "Pete" Dalina, Deputy Director welcome the crowd
to the opening night of EVITA at The Stephen J. Capestro Amphitheater