By Alicia Cook
All the world may be a stage, but community theatre is a tough business.
It is the dream of many to found a local theatre; but raising the curtain can prove to be much more difficult than most imagine.
Many community theatres come and go, but New Jersey’s 4th Wall Theatre will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year.
After sitting with 4th Wall’s dream team, it is clear why this theatre beat the odds.
“4th Wall feels like my baby,” said Gwen Ricks-Spencer, Executive Director of 4th Wall Theatre, Inc. “I’m still here. This baby has grown, and I want to see it grow more. I am so proud of what we managed to build.”
Ricks-Spencer was one of the founding members of 4th Wall in 1996. According to the theatre’s website, the idea began with eight friends, who all worked as performers or artistic staff members at the Montclair Operetta Club in Montclair, NJ.
The original founding members included Mark Frawley and Deborah Martin, with Trustees Richard Colonna, Lisa Hughes, Kathi Iannacone, Ed Kamholz, Nancy Marino and Gwen Ricks-Spencer. Joining them in forming the group were Beth Vecchio and Charles Alexander Hay. Since its inception, members have come and gone, and in 2005 Ricks-Spencer, a member of the original Board, assumed the role of Executive Director.
4th Wall was incorporated in 1997 and began its residency at the prestigious Morristown-Beard School in Morristown New Jersey. During 4th Wall’s early years, the group continued to fine tune its mission and saw both audience growth and critical recognition for its presentations.
What immediately sets 4th Wall apart is that 4th Wall's mission was distinctly changed from focusing on ensemble, non-star works to focusing on edgier, lesser known works.
4th Wall’s slogan is “theatre on the edge” and lives up to that. Even the well-known shows get the 4th Wall treatment by incorporating creative twists like cross-gender casting and changes to the setting of the original work.
For instance, when 4th Wall produced Funny Girl, a musical linked to Barbara Streisand and performed and produced time and time again, they cast nine women as Fanny Brice, each with a different sound and body type. When they produced Sweeney Todd, they cast an African American male as the lead.
Since leaving Morristown-Beard School, 4th Wall has held residencies at the Bickford Theatre, Kean University, and 12 Miles West. In the winter of 2006, the group made its current move to be the theatre in residence at the Westminster Arts Center (WAC) on the campus of Bloomfield College.
4th Wall originally caught the attention of Bloomfield College President, Richard A. Levao, when he attended one of their productions in downtown Bloomfield. Levao approached the team about the available space at the Westminster Arts Center at the College, an intimate proscenium theatre with seating for 300 inside a turn-of-the-century brownstone church.
“One of the reasons I love directing and seeing shows at 4th Wall is that, in the space at WAC, the thrust stage helps us get closer to the audience, to break through that fourth wall that so often distances an audience from the emotions of the show they are seeing,” explained Kate Swan, Artistic Director. “We often use the aisles and sit on the edge of the stage for various scenes. We love that intimacy, and we are so pleased with WAC because of the opportunities it allows us.”
Since moving to Bloomfield College 10 years ago, 4th Wall has expanded with the addition of a "Musicals in Development" (M.I.D.) series to present the works of new composers and writers and an "Off the Wall" series, which allows the group to present both plays and musicals which are artistically interesting, but not right for mainstage production.
Another audience draw is the diversity of each cast. 4th Wall tries not to cast the same people over and over again. More so, the casts are a nice mixture of high quality professional actors and others like bankers, lawyers, and executives who were maybe performers in a previous life. 4th Wall attracts actors from New York City because of Bloomfield College’s 12-mile proximity to the City as well how easily accessible the College is by all forms of public transportation. Also, many of these actors can land their “dream role,” with 4th Wall since they put on shows that are not produced by many theatres.
“It’s been my home for 10 years, an extended family,” said Martha Thalheimer, Business Manager. “It’s fun to be a part of all of this. There is a whole different caliber to 4th Wall.”
Ricks-Spencer, Swan, and Thalheimer are a united front, sharing the passion, professionalism, and business sense needed to keep a community theatre afloat for two decades. More importantly, they are friends who love what they do.
In 2016-2017, 4th Wall will be putting on Guys & Dolls (Off the Wall), in concert, Take One (M.I.D.), written by former Saturday Night Live writer Jeff Ward, and It Shoulda Been You, which ran on Broadway in 2015, on their main stage.
The theatre will also host two bonus programs in 2017. 4th Wall Theatre will celebrate Black History Month with a one-night play reading of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange and will follow-up their successful 2014 Showcase with the NJ Musical Theatre Composers Showcase.
Bloomfield College students receive highly discounted tickets to 4th Wall Productions, at just $4.00.
For more information on 4th Wall or to purchase tickets, visit their website.