What Exit? and the Theater Project Join in Marriage

The bride wore a blazer, and a big smile.  The groom wore a tie.

Bev Sheehan and Mark Spina

All of the speakers praising the merger of the Theater Project, formerly of Union, with What Exit? in Maplewood this morning at a press breakfast at the Burgdorff Cultural Center. described it as a marriage.  Gary Glor, General Manager of Theater Project, served as emcee.

What Exit? was founded in 1994 in Maplewood.  The Theater Project, previously in residence at Union County College, was also founded in 1994.  Mark Spina, Artistic Director of the Theater Project, is the (figurative) groom; Bev Sheehan, Artistic Director of What Exit?,  the bride.

The bride is taking the groom’s name:  the new company will be called the Theater Project.  However, some programs, like the comedy series, will continue to be called What Exit? comedy nights.  Sheehan will be the Casting Director of the new company.   Spina and Sheehan had worked together before, and the merger came as a solution to the companies’ economic and organizational crises.

“Crises breeds opportunity,” Spina told Baristanet.  The merger has been in the works a little under a year.  “It seemed like a logical next step because we had worked together so much in the past.  Each organization needed more people to help.”

The Theater Project, known for doing contemporary work, has had plays listed in The Star-Ledger’s Top 10 productions of the year,  had lost its space at Union County College.  What Exit? also produced contemporary work, focusing on comedy.  Both companies offered outreach and education programs, and the merger will enable them to do more.

Burgdorff will be the home for the mainstage series.  Many of the satellite programs will continue to be held at the Cranford Public Library.  The Children’s Program will be at the Burgdorff.  “We don’t want to lose touch with either audience,” Spina told us. “We are hoping woo the audience by having footholds in both communities.”

Emily Zacharias, of the Maplewood Art Council, spoke first at the event, saying “we are gathered here together in this old Christian Scientist church to join together these two theatre companies.”  A resident of Maplewood since 1983, she said that she and Bev Sheehan represent “Ground Zero for professional actors staking a claim in Maplewood.”  She was actually involved with What Exit?’s first production, Chris Durang’s Baby and the Bathwater, so, she said, it is fitting that the new company’s first show will also be by Chris Durang:  Miss Witherspoon.

John McEwan of the New Jersey Theater Alliance

Both Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca and John McEwen from Maplewood Mayor Vic De Luca the New Jersey Theater Allicance pointed out that the merger will be an economic benefit to Maplewood and to the surrounding communities.   McEwen joked that while the economy has encouraged non-profit theaters to share resources, collaborate and coproduce, “this is the first time two organizations have walked down the aisle.”

Bev Sheehan  said she feels like the character in Miss Witherspoon, who is reincarnated as a dog after begging not to come back at all.   “I feel like I get to come back as a dog, sniff the grass, chase my ball, and maybe get patted on the head a little.  But I won’t have nearly as much responsibility, and it will be a lot more fun!”  She will be appearing in Miss Witherspoon, but, as she later told Baristanet, “I had to audition.”

She  introduced Mark Spina as the “man who will wear the pants.”  He said that the theater was part of an educational institution, and that many of the people involved were really “waiting for their big teaching break, and just doing this theater thing to support ourselves until we get that.”  Education is at the heart and soul of many of the small professional theaters in New Jersey, he said.  In addition to offering classes for children and teens, the new company will include a Young Playwrights Competition, a festival of one-act plays, a professional writers’ group, a staged reading series, comedy nights, a summer youth musical from the Theater Project Jr.,  and a bilingual play for young people.  There will also be an annual holiday performance.

Sheehan told Baristanet said that the most challenging thing was figuring out everybody’s roles, though she was happy to step down. “There’s a family feeling in New Jersey theater.”

A benefit performance, “An Evening of Sondheim” will take place March 5.  Tickets are $50 per person, and available at 973-763-4029.The company’s first production, Miss Witherspoon, will run from April 12-29.  Tickets are available at BrownPaperTickets.com or 1-800-838-3006.  Both events will take place at the Burgdorff Cultural Center, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood.








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