LIVINGSTON, NJ — Livingston has a long history of theatrical and musical talent, with notables like Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld”; Tony-and Grammy Award-winner Stephen Oremas, who arranged music for “Kinky Boots,” “Wicked,” “Book of Mormon,” “Frozen,” “Avenue Q” and more; Barbara Anselmi, writer and composer of Broadway’s “It Shoulda Been You”; and Tony Award-winner Nikki James from “Book of Mormon” and “Les Miserables” all hailing from Livingston.
But today, the Arts Council of Livingston (ACL) is concerned that the lack of space for local performers to showcase their talents is deterring them from reaching their full potential.
Hugh Mahon, a retired Livingston art teacher and an award-winning set designer for the Livingston Community Players, recently spoke to the mayor and council on behalf of the ACL about the need for a proper theater for plays, musicals, dance and other performances.
Despite a good working relationship with the township council, Mahon voiced the organization’s frustration that the ACL has been unable to receive financial support at the municipal level. According to Mahon, the discussion about either constructing a new theater or transforming an existing building into a theater has been ongoing since 1995, but that nothing has been accomplished.
Mayor Al Anthony said the governing body is equally enthusiastic about having a theater in Livingston, but noted that there is a price tag attached to the project that needs to be addressed before the township can move forward.
“We are certainly interested in an arts center to promote our arts in town and for our residents to enjoy,” said Anthony. “Our council has long promoted the arts, but it would be even better if our very talented residents—both children and adults alike— had a permanent place to display their talents. We will continue this dialogue with the Arts Council and interested residents going forward and look for ways to make this work.”
According to Mahon, the former Livingston Recreation Department located across from the high school has been considered as a potential location, as it has the ability to house between 90 and 350 seats and also has a basement that can be used for rehearsals. However, the price tag to renovate the building and bring it up to code or to raze it is at least $6 million, he said.
There has also been talk of renovating part of the Livingston Senior and Community Center to include a theater, which would be exorbitantly expensive as well, according to Mahon.
As a father of three daughters who played sports for Livingston High School, Mahon said he is proud that Livingston has been able to acquire a new turf field on Madonna Drive, but is concerned that “many students’ varsity letters are in theater” and that these students “should also benefit from a facility in town.”
Mahon noted that the Livingston Public Schools system has hosted the Livingston Community Players’ (LCP) performances for years, with many of the productions being housed at Mt. Pleasant Middle School. But sharing space in a school can be challenging, according to Mahon. Some of those challenges included the need to rent a storage pod at the school for costumes, wigs and props as well as the need to pay custodians to help out before, during and after the performances.
“Theater is hard; don’t make it harder,” said Mahon, who also expressed concern that some of Livingston’s most talented groups and individuals are currently going to other towns due to the lack of performance space in Livingston. “We are actually losing our local talent because of our lack of a facility. A singing quartet went to Morristown and other performers have gone to the Luna Stage in West Orange, South Orange Performing Arts Center and Montclair.”
Some of the many groups who have expressed interest in sharing theater space in Livingston include a local dance troop, the Livingston Symphony Orchestra, the Livingston Camera Club, the Children’s Theatre of Livingston, Pleasant Valley Productions of West Orange, a Livingston High School teacher looking for space to hold a foreign film festival and more.
Although the LCP, a member of the ACL, is grateful for the support and sponsorship from the township, the Livingston Board of Education and Livingston’s Senior, Youth and Leisure Services (SYLS), Mahon noted that each LCP production costs approximately $30,000 to cover the cost of costumes, wigs, props, sets and musicians.
The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn often supports local theater groups by renting out many of the aforementioned theater necessities, but Mahon said that more needs to be done in order to help Livingston’s most talented performers to shine.
The ACL urges “anyone interested in theater and parents whose children love to perform” to help this grass roots effort that began more than 10 years ago.
To help make this dream a reality, contact ACL President Barbara Sax at 973-868-9626 or Vice President Joan Speare at 508-982-1083, or contact Mahon directly at email@example.com.