The Golden Age

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has performed all of the bard’s 37 plays on campus, including Antony and Cleopatra.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2012—and a 40-year partnership with Drew.

By Mary Jo Patterson

In the summer of 1990 a headhunter approached Bonnie J. Monte, a young theater professional in New York, about a job opportunity as artistic director at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival at Drew University. Monte was not interested. The festival, founded in 1962, was deeply in debt and did not enjoy a good reputation across the Hudson. “Go out there and take a look,” the headhunter urged. Monte did, and although she left the performance of Romeo and Juliet at intermission that day—she says she had seen “enough”—she fell in love with the Drew campus.

“I did a complete turnaround,” Monte recalls. “I thought, I want this theater not only to survive, but evolve. I want to create a renaissance here.”

With Monte on board, the festival expanded its mission, improved its finances and repaired its reputation. In 1997 it raised $7.5 million to renovate the old Bowne Theatre, and three years later the company was renamed the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ).

It also solidified its affiliation with Drew, creating a symbiotic union that has enriched both institutions. Today, 50 years after the theater company was founded and 40 years after it came to Drew, the two are virtually inseparable. And Monte, now 57 and living in Madison, remains as artistic director.

Having a professional Actors’ Equity company on campus, says Frank Occhiogrosso, a Drew professor of English and a Shakespeare expert, is one of the best things that ever happened to Drew. “That puts dramatic excellence within the reach of us all,” he says. “But in addition, our undergrad theatre arts majors have benefited enormously.”

The company is a valuable resource for students looking to enrich their academic experience, says Daniel LaPenta, professor in the theatre arts department.  “Our department pedagogy focuses on breadth—in the liberal arts, but also in the theater itself.  Our majors are required to know something about and take classes in all of the theatrical disciplines. STNJ’s opportunities allow our students to concentrate in one area in an intensive manner.”

STNJ shares the refurbished F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre with the university, giving theatre arts students access to state-of the-art lighting and sound systems and expert staff. Drew faculty and students also receive discounted tickets to performances. The collaboration has helped raise Drew’s profile: STNJ patrons come to campus from across New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Peggi Howard, vice president of administration and university relations at Drew, says she and former President Thomas Kean were always “big supporters” of STNJ. “We felt that bringing thousands of people on campus—many for the first time—would be a great way to share Drew’s story,” Howard says. While Kean was president, university trustees voted to contribute $1 million toward Bowne Theatre’s renovation. The building is owned by Drew and operated by the Shakespeare Theatre under terms of a 50-year lease.

Drew also benefits by renting rooms to hundreds of young people who enroll in the STNJ’s Summer Professional Training Program. But blessings flow to the theater company as well. Joe Discher ’91, a former assistant artistic director at the company, says “a lot of great students” have interned at STNJ. A theatre arts major, Discher worked two internships at the theater during his time at Drew. Shortly after he graduated, Monte hired him full time. “We’ve had a couple hundred students who’ve come through our doors,” he says, “doing everything from administration to backstage production, design and acting apprenticeships.”

Many theater companies are located on college campuses, Monte says, but few enjoy enduring partnerships. “It all began when Drew responded to an arts organization in crisis,” she says. “The theater was homeless. What’s remarkable is that it’s still here. Having a partnership that lasts 40 years is quite an achievement.”

Leave a Reply