Montclair State Students Bring Theatre to New Jersey High Schools

Montclair State "Theatre on the Move" cast includes, from left to right, Michael Brewer, Alejandro Hernandez, Shannon Sullivan, and Khadijjah Mote

Theatre on the Move, a new touring company within the College of the Arts’ (CART) Department of Theatre and Dance, is bringing socially relevant theatrical performances to high schools around the state and providing Montclair State University’s aspiring actors with an opportunity to hone their craft off campus.

“We’re trying to give students more flexibility, so that when they leave here they’ll be prepared to perform in a variety of venues,” says Theatre and Dance Professor Suzanne Trauth. “If they’re lucky, these students are going to work off-off Broadway in a small theatre, or they may be hired for a touring company, so this will be more like the experience they will have when they graduate.”

The company’s first production this fall was an original play commissioned by the Department of Theatre and Dance and the CART outreach program and written by CART alumnus Ben Clawson ’07. Entitled Tuesdays, the play is about four New Jersey high school students who watch the tragic events of September 11, 2001 unfold on a television set in their school’s senior lounge.

Dramatic and thought-provoking, the 50-minute play explores the characters’ reactions to the World Trade Center attacks as well as the teenage experience in the post-9/11 world. “It’s about how these kids process that day,” says Trauth, who also directs the play. “It’s all very relatable to kids in high school now.”

The six students (three seniors, two juniors, and one sophomore) chosen for the cast of Tuesdays competed for their roles at auditions that were open to all undergraduate acting majors. Another four students were assigned backstage jobs, such as stage manager and assistant director. Each student earns one course credit for being part of the touring company.

The company travels to high schools by van with their stage props, in this case a sofa, two chairs, and a backdrop with high school lockers painted on one side and a senior lounge on the other. The music and sound effects are drawn from the period.

“We were looking for solid actors, but also self-starters,” Trauth explains. “We wanted students who were mature enough to pull their weight in the project but who were also able to communicate well with their audience.”

Study guides are distributed to audience and each performance is followed by a post-play discussion led by the cast.  Nearly 750 high school students have seen the play.

Shannon Sullivan, 20, a junior from Hazlet, New Jersey, was in elementary school 10 years ago. The character she plays in Tuesdays worries about her father, who works in the Twin Towers. As the play progresses, she’s relieved to learn that he escaped death because his alarm failed to wake him up that morning.

Sullivan enjoys the challenges of performing in different venues. “We worked in a new environment and had to connect quickly to that space. It made things feel spontaneous. That gave me even more of a rush,” she said.

The feedback from high schools has been equally positive. “The [play] spoke to our students in a real way. The students felt it was an authentic portrayal of very important subject material,” said Scott Killian, a teacher at High Tech High School in North Bergen. “You could have heard a pin drop in the theatre—the students were riveted.”

For the upcoming spring semester, a program of American Literature on Stage will feature a collage of great moments/scenes from classic American plays and novels. The theme will focus on the issue of bullying.

“We are working with teachers to develop a piece that speaks to their needs,” says Susan Kerner, associate professor of Theatre and Dance, the director for the spring program. The literary vignettes will be drawn from a list that includes scenes from The Crucible by Arthur Miller, The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman, and other more contemporary works.