Soon audiences in Jersey City won’t have to cross the river to access high-quality classical theatre.
Shakespeare@ is launching with its first production of Hamlet early in 2019 at Grace Church Van Vorst. The company’s mandate is to “tell epic stories in intimate and unique spaces, with a mission to revitalize the performance, education and audience for Shakespeare and classic drama.”
“The idea for this company had been in my mind for a while,” says Sean. “Jersey City is a perfect place to offer Shakespeare – there’s nothing like it here right now.”
“When we moved here a decade ago, people were just starting to catch on to how affordable it was - right next door to Manhattan.”
“And in the past 10 years, there has been so much great change: so many great restaurants, great chefs, great bars, great nightlife – and an incredible arts scene attracting all kinds of artists.”
“It’s just sort of exploding right now. It’s an exciting time to be here.”
Sean grew up in West Virginia, followed by many years working in New York and London. But it’s Jersey City where he has chosen to make his home.
“There’s a real hometown pride about living here,” says Sean. “I live here with my wife and my little boy and we just love it.”
Shakespeare@ is committed to international and cross-cultural exchange in its productions. So while there is and will be casting from the New York and Jersey City area, they are committed to reflecting the diversity, and the roots, of the community they serve.
“The dream is to attract artists from other countries, other cultures, not just abroad but in our own backyard. I think that’s important,” says Sean.
“I think we grow and learn the most when we’re in communication with what is foreign. Our empathy and humanity are developed by exposure to other ideas, approaches, and cultures.”
For the company’s first production, Sean first reached out to some actors known to him across the pond.
“So our initial plan was we had an actor coming over from London to play Macbeth this fall,” relates Sean. “But then he got cast as Harry Potter in the West End, so we had to very quickly rethink that plan!”
“I contacted another London-based actor that I had been talking to – and been wanting to work with for a long time – so we basically sat down and asked, “what do we want to do together?” And that’s where we came up with Hamlet.”
For now, Sean is circumspect when queried about who the leads in Hamlet will be.
“We’re having a big announcement in early November – let’s just say for now that audiences will be very familiar with our Hamlet and Ophelia—and a few others.”
Another important aspect of Shakespeare@ will be their changing venue concept.
“When I came back from England in 2003-2004, I wanted to find the kind of theatre that I had liked over there,” says Sean. “Really large casts in intimate spaces. You can see this a lot over there from the RSC to the different theatres of the National to regional classical companies like Tobacco Factory out in Bristol.”
“What I tended to find here seemed to be one or the other – really large casts in really big spaces (needing microphones) or really small casts or four-person deconstructions of the play, in small, black-box type spaces.”
“Although I certainly enjoy both of those types of theatre, it’s not what I wanted to do.”
”At Shakespeare@, the idea is that each production has large-cast storytelling in a unique and intimate space,” continued Sean.
“So for our production of Hamlet in 2019, we are going to be ‘Shakespeare@ Grace Church’. It’s an incredible space (full name: Grace Church Van Vorst), in downtown Jersey City. It’s a gorgeous Gothic-style church built in 1853 with huge ceilings and stained glass windows – just a beautiful space. Here spectators will feel incredibly close to the action, they’ll hopefully feel like they are in the midst of this epic story.”
A HOMETOWN COMPANY
It’s important to Sean that Shakespeare@ is strongly branded as a Jersey City company.
“We want to showcase Jersey City, we want to showcase the spaces, we want people moving around and throughout Jersey City,” Sean declares enthusiastically. “Jersey City is huge! It is also one of the most diverse cities in America and we want to highlight all of that.”
He’s right. In fact, Jersey City was recently named the MOST diverse city in the country. According to U.S. Census figures, 52.6 percent of Jersey City residents speak a language other than English in the home. The most common foreign languages in the city are Spanish, Tagalog and Hindi, the Census said.
“When an audience member of ours walks in to see one of our productions, what we want them to experience is a reflection of the people they see on the street,” says Sean. “We want them to be able to recognize themselves, their neighborhoods.”
Sean is excited about the benefits that Shakespeare@ will bring to audiences in Jersey City.
“We’re here to produce high-class productions of epic stories, told by high-class actors,” Sean summarizes. “I’m just thrilled to have this opportunity – and excited for the future – right here in Jersey City.”
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