Passage Theatre Company’s 37th season celebrates Trenton with the “Trenton Makes” series. The goal of this season, according to Artistic Director Ryanne Domingues, is to highlight the triumphs and challenges of Trenton, NJ. Through performances at the Mill Hill Playhouse, audiences will discover what makes Trenton such a unique community. First up is The OK Trenton Project, a documentary style play telling the true story of a public art piece taken down just four days after installation due to anonymous complaints that the sculpture resembled a gang symbol. The OK Trenton Project is the result of four years of development for Passage’s PlayLab program. Ryanne Domingues talks to us about the process, the important of public art, and what we can anticipate from this season’s performances.
Q: The OK Trenton Project is a documentary style play told through the words of many people involved in the sculpture and the community. Why do you feel this style is the best approach to the story?
A: This story is about the people in our community. The students, artists, non-profit workers, officials, and others who make Trenton what it is. They know the story better than anyone, so we wanted to make sure that it was told in their words. I think it’s important to honor the unique voices of a community, especially one as diverse as this one. If we were to have written the piece ourselves, without the voices of those involved, it would have been impossible to match the nuance and depth of feeling that was shared by those we interviewed.
Q: The play took four years for PlayLab to develop. Aside from Covid restrictions, what obstacles did you face when working to bring the story to life on stage?
A: At first, it was difficult to find people who were willing to talk to us about the incident. People didn’t want to get involved or be seen as taking sides in the matter. It took quite a bit of digging to find out exactly who was involved and who the best people were to talk to. One of our biggest challenges was reaching out to the students who made the sculpture, as we didn’t have any contact information for them to start, and they were all under the age of 18. Once we started gathering more interviews, there was the matter of getting them all transcribed so that we could be sure we were honoring people’s exact words and way of speaking. We did over 35 interviews, most of them lasting roughly an hour, so it was a lot to sift through and piece together. We also did a lot of research to find articles, videos, and stories related to the event. It was a challenge to widdle everything down into one piece with a clear journey. I am incredibly grateful to the entire team, who went above and beyond in their time and dedication to this story.
Q: In what ways do you think public art can inspire and connect a community?
A: I think art in general is a flashpoint for important and meaningful conversations. The wonderful thing about public art is that a person does not have to buy a ticket, wait in line, or schedule a time to see it. It is accessible to anyone walking by. In this way, it breaks down the barriers of race, class, etc. in ways that other forms cannot. This allows for important conversations and considerations to happen between groups who may not traditionally meet. It almost forces people to have a viewpoint on something they may not necessarily consume by choice, but may be pleasantly surprised by. With all of the options for entertainment and news in today’s world, it’s easy to only view or listen to the things you already know, like, or agree with. We can get stuck in the tunnel of our own narrative. Public art almost forces us to have an experience that we may not have thought to engage in ourselves, and in that way, it can teach us all something about a world outside of our own.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the theatre’s PlayLab and the type of work the program develops?A: Passage’s PlayLab was started by Passage’s former Artistic Director, June Ballinger, and former Associate Artistic Director (and co-creator of The OK Trenton Project), David Lee White, many years ago. The intention was to give playwrights a supportive environment in which to create and develop new work with their peers. It started with a group of wonderful playwrights who would read each other’s scripts and give each other feedback. Many of the plays were given readings or full productions on the Passage stage.
When I got to Passage, I wanted to find additional ways to support new work, so I asked a number of playwrights to give me their wish lists. All of their responses were pretty much the same. They wanted the time, money, and resources needed for other theatre professionals to workshop their pieces; they wanted funding to help support them financially during the writing process; and they wanted fully realized productions that would enable other theatres to see and consider their work. A lot of people don’t realize it, but plays can take years to develop. It is an incredibly expensive endeavor, as it takes the collaboration of a lot of people. Support of this extent was going to take a lot of effort, but as a theatre whose mission is to produce new work (or plays between their first and fifth production), I knew that we had to make a larger investment in our playwrights. We ended up creating a plan that would lead to a world premiere play being fully produced on Passage’s stage at least every three years, following a two and a half year workshop and development process that we would help to support.
The OK Trenton Project is the first play to be produced from that plan, and Group!, the new musical we are producing in May, will be the second. We have learned a lot along the way about how to better foster and support playwrights, and we hope to further improve the process with every show. Up next, we have a new show called i am not okay, by marcus d. harvey, which is an interview-based play that investigates the causes behind the rise in suicides within local black and brown communities. That show just finished its first year in the program, and is slated to premiere in 2024. What we are working on now is a better way for playwrights to submit to the program. We are hoping to develop a panel of people who can help read and consider submissions for the program, which would allow for a more equitable and accessible opportunity. When it comes to shows that are right for PlayLab, we look for pieces that fit within our mission and our budget. They need to reflect the diversity of the Trenton community and touch on topics that are socially relevant to those in our area. The program in its current incarnation is still very new, so we are still looking for sponsors and funding to better support it. I think it has a lot of potential to bring fantastic work to the American theatre.
Q: What do you look for when choosing programming for Passage Theatre?
A: I ask myself a very basic question: Why does this story need to be told to our specific community right now? In other words, I check in to make sure that the story is one that will connect to our diverse community and touch on a topic that is relevant to them at this moment in time.
Q: What do you hope audiences take away from The Trenton Project and other performances this season?
A: The theme of this season is “Trenton Makes”, and the goal is to highlight our city’s triumphs and challenges while also celebrating its unique community. I hope that our shows this season show the incredible things that take place and come out of Trenton, while also shedding light on what can be done to help those in our community. All of the shows this season are set in Trenton, and the characters are similar to those we see in our neighborhoods each day. I think that ultimately, the shows prove that the people in our community have an enormous amount of heart, and that’s something we could all use more of right now.
The OK Trenton Project is a main stage production for the Trenton based theatre company. Performances run from Thursday, February 10th – Sunday, February 27th. For tickets and more info about this season at Passage Theatre Company, visit their website here.