CAMDEN, NJ — In the early 2000s, the waterfront south — an area in Camden historically associated with public littering and moldered buildings — was actually fertile ground for the arts. 

The problem was, nobody knew it. 

“We were the first ones,” South Camden Theatre Company’s (SCTC) Artistic Director, Ray Croce, told TAPinto Camden. “And I couldn’t be prouder of the vibrancy that has developed since we incorporated in 2005.” 

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Croce, who along with the rest of the company is celebrating their 15th anniversary this October, isn’t exaggerating when he alludes to the community’s vigor.

Around the corner, FireWorks refurbished an old firehouse in 2016. That same year, the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum began their voyage to trace South Jersey’s ties to shipbuilding. And two years ago Nick Virgilio, considered among the world’s foremost haiku poets, opened the Nick Virgilio Writers House down the street. 

More than honorable mentions are also due for Bee Still Studio and Brigid’s House for Writers.

“You can feel it when you're down here,” said SCTC Board President, Robert Bingaman. 

The three-floor theater at the corner of Jasper and 4th Street stands out from street view for its banner and brick exterior. The cozyness within, ready to embrace curious and prospective audience members, was amplified on a recent chilly night.

The theater cost upwards of $1 million to build from the ground up. Funds for it were provided by Helene Pierson, Executive Director of The Heart of Camden, and Pepe Piperno. 

“They funded us but it was the vision of Father Doyle, who allowed us to start out in the basement of Sacred Heart Church across the street, that made it all possible,” said Bingaman.

A toast for history

As for the artistic direction of the theater company, Doyle drew the talents of playwright Joe Paprzycki in the early 2000s.

Bingaman said that Paprzycki, the founding Artistic Director, made due with the compassion had by local volunteers and auteurs eager to display their talents.  

Paprzycki's grandparents, Walt and Sue Evanuk, and their experience serving the workers of the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at a neighborhood taproom inspired the theater’s first -fully-staged production, “Last Rites.”

Since then, the SCTC has had no shortage of material. 

Past productions include John Quare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” and a one-act weekend festival entitled, “Shadows of War.”

The theaters' quaint stage has been molded to everything from a neighborhood porch to the cockpit of an airliner. 

“One year we did a spectacular season entirely of Tennessee Williams, starting with ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’ and ending with ‘Night of the Iguana.’ And those were two of our highest-rated shows ever,” said Croce, referring to 2012.

Longtime Philadelphia theater critic Wendy Rosenfield called the latter “a fine capper” and said director, Randall McCann and his set got “the play’s juices flowing.” 

There was also the serendipitous “By the Water” — a production about Hurricane Sandy that happened to show in conjunction with the less-precipitous “Hurricane Florence” which brought downpours across South Jersey.

“It was pouring rain the entire show,” said Bingaman. “Some of the streets were flooded and people still came. It added to the experience.”

Supernatural thread

Heading into their 15th year — and marking a decade at its marquee space — Croce said his vision for 2020 was of a darker variety.

“This time we have a supernatural element that weaves through all four shows,” he said.

The first of which, Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa’s “Abigail/1702: A Twice Told Tale,” tells of New England witchery during the infamous Salem witch trials. 

The SCTC’s harrowing play will run from Feb. 7 to Feb. 29.

“I usually handle the lighting at the theater and when Ray handed me the play, I couldn’t put it down,” said first-time director, Josh Samors. “When I finally finished it, I approached him with some ideas for the lights, and he said, ‘Do you want to direct it?’ I was surprised and excited. I agreed to do it right away.”

“Abigail/1702” picks up with the end of Arthur Miller's “Crucible” with title character, Abigail Williams, 17, running away from Salem, Massachusetts. 

“The thing I love about this play is that it avoids the temptation that many playwrights fall for, which is to spell out the morality and then answer it at the end,” said Samors. “I hope people leave the show having a conversation.”

“Abigail/1702” will be followed by Gabrielle Affleck’s production of Gabriel Jason Dean’s “Terminus.”

The play follows Eller, a white matriarch, and her mixed-race grandson, Jaybo, who reside in a “ramshackle house” near the railroad tracks of rural Georgia.

“The play deals with the way people change their own history,” said Affleck, who found the show while perusing scripts online, which she’s wont to do. “It’s haunting and I think people will enjoy it.”

Affleck, who is currently putting on “Holmes and Watson” with the Burlington County Footlighters,” said she’s still casting for her SCTC show.

“Terminus” will run from April 24 to May 16.

Later this year the SCTC will host productions of Sharyn Rothstein’s “A Good Farmer” with director, Scott Grumling, from Sept. 11 to Oct. 3.

From Oct. 30 to Nov. 21 director Damien J. Wallace will tell “Moonlight” writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size.”

As for the 2021 season, Croce is still fine-tuning some ideas. 

“I've been reading some plays... I don’t know,” he said, letting his thoughts linger. “But I really want to diversify. I'm looking at plays written by Arab-Americans, by Asian Americans, as well as by Native Americans and Hispanic Americans. I might want to title the season, ‘The Americans,’ because we are a melting pot.”

He thought some more, “I don’t know exactly yet...but I can tell you I’m excited.”

To learn more about the South Camden Theater Company or to buy tickets for an upcoming show visit www.southcamdentheatre.org

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