John Keller has seen New Brunswick’s theater scene flourish into a vibrant community thanks to some major transformations to the downtown business district in recent years.

Those changes have spelled opportunity for the city native, actor and graduate of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, who last week performed in the  “CommonGround: Festival of the People” at Crossroads Theatre.

“When I was a little kid, you would never be in downtown New Brunswick after 4:30,” Keller said. “When I was 11 years old, if I ever told my mom that I had walked from one end of town to the other, she would have killed me.”

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He even recalls a time when the George Street Playhouse was an abandoned pornography theater. Today, however, the city provides a nurturing environment where theater and other art forms flourish, he said.

Keller participated this year as a reader for one of the annual festival’s productions, Alice Childress' “Trouble in Mind.”

He attributes part of the positive cultural and structural changes to the presence of Rutgers University, Johnson & Johnson and two major hospitals as well as the city’s convenient geographic location.

“All of those factors have made it possible for individuals in a lot of varied fields to setup shop in New Brunswick, and it is no less true for the arts,” Keller said.

As part of the city’s theatre district, Crossroads stages the annual event as a celebration of the city’s cultural diversity, and to provide opportunity to local artists.

“This festival allows Crossroads to further connect with various groups in the community and share their passions and stories with our Crossroads’ family,”  said Marshall Jones 3d, the theater’s executive director.  “The programming is diverse and we look forward to bringing this work to our stage.”

The CommonGround festival echoes Crossroads’ mission statement and dedication to high quality theatre with motifs that focus on cultural diversity and engage a multicultural audience.

“It’s a festival looking to explore theatrical pieces that examine some sort of disparity between two different groups,” Keller said. “The stories are about people trying to find common ground.”

Keller went to high school in New Brunswick and after attending college in Massachusetts and traveling the country with various theater companies, returned to his hometown and received a graduate degree from Mason Gross.

He works in the Mason Gross theater department, teaches part-time at New Brunswick High School and is the artistic director for a local non-profit arts organization, CoLAB.  

Keller also notes that since the city has become a more appealing place to live, Mason Gross graduates have increasingly chosen to stay rather than moving to New York City to pursue their acting careers.

“Now that New Brunswick has a social downtown culture, it makes it possible for artists who have decided to stay and commit themselves to the area, to live here and not just work here,” Keller said. “It’s the type of atmosphere that encourages artists to commit themselves.”