NEWTON, NJ- The Newton Theatre drew a crowd on Monday afternoon. U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer was joined by Town Manager Thomas S. Russo, Jr, ThorLabs President Alex Cable, Sussex County Chamber of Commerce President Tammie Horsfield across the street from the theater to cut the ribbon to officially open the Newton Theatre Arts Academy. 

Several Sparta children participated in a vocal performance for the people gathered in the new space.

Newton Theatre President Jonathan Peirce hosted the Champagne event in the space recently transformed into a gallery and work space. The Encore! Art Gallery will display local artists’ work on a rotating basis, “changing every month or so,” Peirce said.

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Sparta High School junior Paul Shumlas has a photo on display in the gallery. The embellished piece depicting a wrestler brings together the athlete and the artist that is Shumlas. While he is not exactly sure where he wants to go to college, “somewhere out west,” he knows he will study photography. 

After the Pledge of Allegiance Gottheimer began remarks with thanks to all who attended and to the Newton Theatre organization for their hand in transforming downtown Newton, where he has an office. 

“To build a strong company, you need a strong community,” Gottheimer said. “Newton Theatre has been a treasured institution since its founding in 1924, with decades of providing programs to educate and entertain the community.”

“It is indescribable to see what has become of the Newton theater and so much more,” Horsfield said.

Students are able to take classes in fine and visual arts and various aspects of theater. Sara Bartlett is the Director of Education and Outreach as well as a theater teacher. The students have put on Annie Jr, Little Mermaid Jr and have just begun work on The Wizard of Oz.

“I could give you lots of facts about how the arts change lives,” Bartlett said. She shared the story of a student, Andrew, who was always angry and acting out. She told of how the ostracized young man was “made whole though the love of theater.”

Choking back emotions Bartlett said Andrew graduated high school this year. She also told Gottheimer and the crowd the students recite the Pledge of Allegiance as their sound check. 

“These students have grown in skills and confidence, learned to work as a team and have empathy,” Bartlett said. 

Several of the young actors performed songs from their most recent production Little Mermaid, Jr.

Student Jake Yaskovic of Frankford confidently listed his numerous performances. While his parents got him to the Newton Theatre program, he was very enthusiastic. “I love acting,” Yaskovic said. “There is not much of a theater program at school anymore.”

“I love singing and acting and the chance to show people what I do and the great opportunity to do what I love,” Alyssa Doughty of Vernon said.

From Warwick, New York, Maddy Luciano was Flounder in Little Mermaid, Jr. “It’s fun meeting new people and learning about acting,” she said. “Yes, I’ll keep coming here.”

Shannon Huhn, a freshman at Sparta High School said, “I think it’s so important to have a strong arts program in the community, especially for children.”

Huhn, called the “nicest person I’ve ever met” by Bartlett, thanked the director “for getting me out of my comfort zone” to play evil Ursula in Little Mermaid, Jr. 

A trio of girls from Jefferson were eager to tell how much they “love acting, dancing and meeting new people.” Tori Fatzynytz, Emma Ruchalski and Celine Covello all see acting and dancing in their future as well. 

Young Alexa Pigeon said her “favorite part is getting to be on stage and meeting new friends.”

Parent Leslie Huhn praised Bartlett for the nurturing way she guided the students to a polished performance. 

“What she put together in three weeks was astonishing. I was not expecting it to be so wonderful,” Huhn said.

Fall art classes will include Cinematic Painting instructed by Joseph Losavio and Bookmaking taught by Renie Garlick. 

The theater arts staff is rounded out with Sparta resident Melissa Gabilanes, a theater educator and director and Laura Rizzo a director and choreographer.

Gottheimer quoted Ronald Reagan, “The humanities tell us who we are and what we can be.” He suggested the new facilities will help students begin to explore those questions for themselves.