MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The Theater Project, the New Jersey-based theater company that produces its mainstage shows in Maplewood, will hold its annual “Kaleidoscope Kabaret” of one-act plays at the Burgdorff Cultural Center from Feb. 24 through 26.
This year’s event features the debut of five plays written by members of the Theater Project’s Playwrights Workshop, a group of writers who meet monthly to read and critique their works in progress. It will also host a production of Ryan Cook, Derek Crosby and Jack McManus’ “Mom, I Want to Be a Chemist,” which won the project’s 2016 Young Playwrights’ Competition.
The plays are highly entertaining yet very different from one another in their subject matter, according to Theater Project Artistic Director Mark Spina. And therein lies the beauty of the “Kaleidoscope Kabaret,” he said.
“It’s like a tasting plate — you can taste everything to see what you like and what you don’t like,” Spina told the News-Record in a Feb. 16 phone interview, adding that the variety is what has made the show a popular attraction for nearly 15 years. “Some people really do enjoy watching shorter works because they get to sample more in one evening.”
Spina also pointed out that the event is a unique opportunity for audience members to interact with the actors and writers of the plays they watch. They also get the chance to experience completely new material, which he said is always interesting. But above all, the artistic director said people should attend because seeing live theater in general is a way to explore one’s imagination. It truly “brings out the artist in each one of us,” he said.
The playwrights themselves are also creatively stimulated during the process of producing a play. Joseph Vitale said he loves collaborating with his director and actors because it is through their questions and interpretation of the material that he can learn things about his own work. Likewise, he said watching his play performed sheds new light on its strengths and shortcomings.
“I very often go back and will rewrite the play based on what I actually saw onstage,” Vitale told the News-Record in a Feb. 16 phone interview. “Theater is a very organic process. In a sense, it never really ends.”
Vitale is no novice when it comes to the “Kaleidoscope Kabaret,” having had plays produced in the event at least five previous times. Three of those plays even went on to be produced elsewhere, with last year’s “Ledges” making it all the way to San Diego for the 2016 North Park Playwrights Festival.
“The Monster Under the Bed,” the play Vitale wrote for this year’s event, centers on the conversation between a little girl and the titular monster that scares her. The playwright said he is fascinated by myths and other imaginings, and it was while thinking about common childhood fears that he came up with the story’s idea. But squeamish theatergoers should not feel too nervous — he said it is a black comedy rather than a horror tale.
Ed Lataro’s play “Going Postal” was based on a horror story from his own life — the years he spent in the postal service working under a demanding supervisor during the 1970s. As in his play, Lataro said his supervisor would often harass him in subtle ways, such as docking him a day’s pay for taking off too many Mondays within a month. He would complain to his union representative and win his cases. But the supervisor was never reprimanded, so the mistreatment continued.
“It was tough,” Lataro recalled to the News-Record in a Feb. 20 phone interview. “You feel like you’re cringing all the time.”
That unpleasant period stayed with Lataro for years until he eventually developed it into a story. He said the finished play is more dramatic than what he actually went through, with the ending most notably differing from reality. Still, the playwright said it was cathartic to write about those events and give himself the opportunity to decide the outcome.
Like Lataro, Stephanie Griffin’s play is also inspired by true events. Griffin told the News-Record she had once heard of a woman whose husband of 20 years simply never returned home from work one day, never to be heard from again. Though the disappearance occurred a few years ago, the playwright said it always stayed with her, especially the idea that people may not really know much about those with whom they think they are close. It affected her so much that she wrote “This Way to the Egress, or Making My Marriage Great Again,” a play about the revelations that occur when a police officer arrives at a woman’s doorstep to arrest the man she believes is her husband.
“This Way to the Egress” marks Griffin’s first production for the “Kaleidescope Kabaret,” and she is looking forward to participating in the show. She said seeing other writers’ work performed live is a great way to pick up new ideas and learn about new techniques to explore. It also serves as a reminder that what is on the page takes on a life of its own on a stage.
Griffin hopes theater fanatics and newcomers alike will attend this year’s “Kaleidoscope Kabaret” — and not just to see her play. With President Donald Trump reportedly contemplating the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, she said now is as vital a time as ever to support the arts. And art is certainly deserving of advocacy, she said, considering its effect on people.
“It’s really valuable,” Griffin said in a Feb. 20 phone interview, explaining that the arts get people “thinking out loud, thinking with each other. It’s useful.”
To order tickets for the Theater Project’s upcoming “Kaleidoscope Kabaret,” visit http://www.thetheaterproject.org/kaleidoscope-kabaret1.html.