We’re not going to allow COVID to kill this theater company.
That was the message Vanguard Theater Company (VTC) sent loud and clear during a hard hat tour Friday at their new theater space in Montclair.
That new space is light, bright and taking shape as renovations move swiftly after a long intermission. The stage was set on March 1, 2020, when Vanguard signed a lease at 180 Bloomfield Avenue, a 4,000 square foot space that houses the oldest proscenium theater in Montclair. VTC was poised to launch its signature Broadway Buddy program, classes and announce its upcoming season, all dedicated to DREAM – Diversity, Reciprocity, Education, Activism and Mentorship.
Shortly after, the COVID-19 shutdown began and life as we knew it drastically changed. And while many businesses and institutions have been able to slowly come back to life as restrictions lifted, the performing arts have faced more challenges than most.
Breaking Down Walls and Stereotypes
Founding Artistic Director Janeece Freeman Clark talks about the experiences she had as a performer that led her to founding Vanguard Theater Company in 2015.
“I was being asked to play characters in such a way that created or continued to perpetuate a stereotype,” says Freeman Clark. “I was being asked all the time, ‘when you play this role, can you be more urban? Can you be more street? Can you have more attitude? Can you be more sassy?’ All these code words. And I started to think – why can’t I just be a person.”
It was this experience that made Freeman Clark want to start her own theater company.
“I wanted to bring together all different backgrounds and all different zip codes, where we could all learn from one another,” she says, adding that when she did, the walls between people came tumbling down, along with all those stereotypes.
“We started celebrating and embracing who we are as individuals. And we’re different from one another and that’s to be celebrated and we should learn to appreciate that,” she says.
Today. VTC is a full representation of that vision. The theater company, with its diverse cast of young performers, take on challenging pieces that change people’s lives and push them to think differently.
“We are raising not only artists, but also what I call artists/activists, who will go out and change the world that we live in,” says Freeman Clark.
Classes at Vanguard Institute for the Performing Arts, for youth and adults, are expected to start this month at the theater company’s permanent home. The space can accommodate an audience of 150-175, but due to COVID-19, VTC plans to first stream performances from the space and then bring in small audiences safely, utilizing tables so family members can be seated together and away from other families.
Renovations have included a glass wall that can be used to open or enclose part of the lobby space of the theater as well as large apron to expand the original stage to accommodate VTC’s large 30-person casts. The apron can also be used for additional seating.
VTC has one production on one weekend each month, so it also plans to rent the space out to other local arts organizations who need a stage; Managing Director Jessica Sporn says many groups, including Montclair Operetta Club, were displaced when Westminster Arts Center in Bloomfield ceased to allow use of their space as a rental.
“We would love it if every weekend there was something going on related to the arts in this space, “says Sporn.
In the meantime, VTC is looking for sponsors who want to support the arts and VTC’s inclusive mission