(Feature photo by Joe Epstein)
For decades, that has been the most famous dramatic moment in this great city of ours. Until now.
Located 1408 Clinton Street in the blossoming NoVia (North of the Viaduct) district, Mile Square Theatre’s 130-seat, fully modern performance space and education studios are the realization of one man’s artistic dream. It will finally add theatre as a permanent fixture enriching Hoboken’s cultural and economic life.
Founder and Artistic Director Chris O’Connor—who’s been involved in the performing arts as an actor, director, producer and college professor—started the theatre in 2003 while in graduate school at Rutgers. The goal was then—as it is now—to create something special for the community.
“The first thing we did was a reading for Black History Month in City Hall in the court chamber,” O’Connor says. “Our big ambition was to do a show on the waterfront, but we had no money, so we had to fundraise. I also always wanted to celebrate Hoboken’s special history with a series of plays about baseball. I found playwrights who were really enthusiastic about that subject, so the 7th Inning Stretch”—seven 10-minute original plays about the sport—“was our first big production. We raised enough money to produce our first park show, Cyrano.”
The 7th Inning Stretch continues to be a Mile Square tradition, attracting writers, performers and audience from across the region. Their outdoor shows, too, have become a fixture of the summer, with last year’s Midsummer Night’s Dream thrilling audiences at the Sinatra Park Amphitheatre.
The non-profit Mile Square Theatre (also know as “MST”) was already the largest arts organization in Hudson County, but it had never had a stable home. For many years, they had no home at all—Hoboken has always been an expensive place for artists and non-profits, especially those in need of space for a whole theatre. They would produce shows at the Historical Society, City Hall, the waterfront or anywhere they could find a temporary stage and an audience.
In 2008, the company established residency in the Monroe Center for the Arts, and during the next five years developed an audience base in greater Hudson County. They began the search for a larger home in early 2014, with a brief time filling a small space in the Edge Lofts before moving across the street this April.
Mile Square Theatre’s mission is to “enrich and engage the region through the production of professional theatre and innovative arts education.” Even as the paint still dries on their new space, they’re leaping headfirst into fulfilling that mission with an ambitious 2016 season that includes five main stage productions.
Goodnight Moon was their first show at the new space – a modern, musical, magical adaptation of the classic children’s book. That will be followed this year by Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, Long Gone Daddy, by Joseph Gallo, Dracula, the Journal of Jonathan Harker – a fantastic adaptation of the thriller for ages 8 and up – and the holiday classic, It’s A Wonderful Life.
There are also plans for one-offs, special events, outdoor productions, maybe even pop-up shows under the nearby viaduct. Nothing is off limits, provided it’s entertaining, original, and fun.
One of the unique strengths of the theatre’s work has always been Hoboken’s proximity to New York City and all the talent therein. It’s why many of us live here, too. Unlike any other theatre outside of Manhattan, Mile Square Theatre is now just two bus stops – or a quick, disgusting swim – from Broadway.
“We’ve been able to get amazing NYC artists since we started,” reports O’Connor. “And now that we’re in NoVia, it will be even easier.”
The new stability will only enhance the already high quality of talent writing, producing, performing and teaching at the theatre. Mile Square Theatre intends to continue producing the best, highest quality professional theatre, rivaling what you get across the river, but without the tolls or traffic.
They’re nurturing local talent, too. MST regular Matthew Lawler recently scored a big role on the ABC drama “The Family” and other successful performers have graced, and will grace, the main stage.
Mile Square Theatre’s greatest production, however, might be the beautiful theatre itself and everything it means to Hoboken. While so much more professionally than a stereotypical “community theatre,” they don’t shy away from the word. Mile Square Theatre’s focus has always been on just that: The community.
Zabrina Stoffel—who you may see riding her razor scooter through Church Square Park with her kids—is the President of the Board of Trustees. “Community building is important to me, and is a big part of our mission. We bring people from all walks of life into the theatre. Our productions are fun and thought-provoking; they connect people and start conversations.”
That’s why a major component of their work will be arts education. MST will offer a full-fledged theatre education curriculum and is developing a dynamic dance program. A summer dance and theatre intensive is lined up for 2016 as well as continuing classes and workshops for kids and adults. In addition to the theatre’s own programs, it also offers weekday matinees for school groups and study guides for teachers for all its family shows.
The focus on education also reflects the theatre’s focus on the family, which is a key part of the Hoboken community. Since the theatre’s first young audience production in 2009—Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse—they’ve always had family shows in their lineup and an emphasis on education.
“Many of us who have been working with the theatre—and those that are on the Board—have families,” said O’Connor. “We all feel pretty strongly that art should be a part of our kids’ lives. It’s a guiding principle in the organization and why I believe a performing arts space can be such a community treasure.”
There’s no disputing the importance of theatre for the cultural, education, and spiritual growth of any community. Arts, and organizations which support the arts, enrich and enhance the quality of life and happiness in every place they inhabit, in every corner of the world.
Hoboken and the region should benefit not just culturally, but also economically from the presence of Mile Square’s new home. The Theatre should bring a multilayered boost to the business climate of the blossoming NoVia district and the city as a whole. From ticket sales to parking, local restaurants and the cinema, as well as complementary arts and educational offerings, Mile Square Theatre intends to help the area grow and thrive.
It’s this widespread benefit that perhaps attracted such an impressive variety of contributors to making O’Connor’s 13-year-old dream come true.
The Mile Square staff and Trustees worked together with contractors, banks, investors, activists, artists, government representatives—Mayor Dawn Zimmer called it “a great addition to the city” —the Chamber of Commerce, as well as concerned community and business leaders to make the theatre a reality.
Collaborating with so many stakeholders, the theatre was able to navigate the byzantine maze of rules and regulations, of fundraising and planning, to create something for the public good, not just for private gain. Meaningful art, not luxury condos. Something intangible and invaluable, inspiring and amazing.
Some are surprised to learn that this is, only now, the first dedicated performing arts space in town. It’s been a challenge for arts and artists to survive here. With a heavy Wall Street presence and flat-screen TVs adorning every other restaurant wall, Hoboken hasn’t always seemed affordable or amenable to developing and supporting creative ambitions.
The performing arts have often visited Hoboken, but they’ve never set down roots. Now, with Mile Square Theatre, they’re here to stay.
Mile Square Theatre hopes to redefine the term “community theatre.” The goal is to create the best, most exciting, entertaining and relevant theatre and education… of the community, by the community, for the community.
Thanks to the presence of a world-class, professional theatre, Hoboken’s quest to become a complete gem of a town remains on track. Thanks to Mile Square Theatre, the mile square city is now, most definitely, a contender.