Behind the Backyard Stage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Following Gov. Murphy’s summer approval of 250-person outdoor gatherings, three staff members hastened to build a safe environment in Florham Park.

backyard stage
Actors Christian Frost, left, and Katja Yacker in Shaw! Shaw! Shaw!​ on the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s backyard stage. Courtesy of Joe Guerin

At the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s newly constructed backyard stage, audiences trade shared armrests in a crowded auditorium for fresh air and ample elbow room. Seated on blankets and beach chairs, mask-wearing theatergoers are placed in pods spaced six feet apart on the lawn of the Thomas H. Kean Theatre Factory, the magical Florham Park building that houses the company’s behind-the-scenes operations. 

Debuting at the end of July, after Gov. Phil Murphy approved outdoor gatherings of 250 people, the backyard stage has been a hit in the nice-weather months. 

“Once he made that announcement, we leapt into action,” says artistic director Bonnie J. Monte.

Over two weeks, three staff members (many employees are furloughed, a common cost-saving measure for arts institutions during this time) designed the stage and created a safe environment for audiences. They utilized equipment from the company’s mainstage productions at Drew University’s F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre and the outdoor summer stage at the College of St. Elizabeth’s Greek amphitheater. Producing outdoor shows at the latter theater helped prepare the company to stage productions on this new backyard stage during the pandemic.

“If we hadn’t been doing that every year, there’s no way we would have been able to pull this off,” says Monte.

Ready to get to work were nine young actors, who had been living together in provided housing since mid-March. Originally hired as the Shakespeare Live! touring group, the small cast was given a weekly food allowance and promised acting opportunities as long as members self-isolated. Once the backyard stage was ready, these non-Equity actors began performing and were given a weekly salary.

backyard stage

From left, Katja Yacker and Christian Frost. Courtesy of Joe Guerin

This month, see the cast in Shaw! Shaw! Shaw!, a 90-minute evening of three one-act plays by George Bernard Shaw through October 25. When selecting works, Monte was on the hunt for pieces that were in public domain (to avoid royalty fees), could accommodate this particular group of actors and would offer audiences something timely.

“I think what the audience needs right now more than anything is relief,” says Monte. “And the ability to just forget everything for a little bit of time. To laugh and to take delight in something.”

Monte estimates she read about 60 plays before choosing these three—Village WooingPassion, Poison, and Petrifaction; and Overruled—by Shaw. 

Monte was hesitant, at first, to mount Shaw’s plays, because “he’s a very indoorsy kind of playwright,” she says. “He requires a lot of focus. He’s very funny. He’s a tremendously brilliant writer of farce and comedies, all of which make strong social statements. So you get a little worried: Will an outdoor setting be conducive to that kind of intellectual comedy?” She adds: “I’m thrilled that it has worked out.”

Up next on the backyard stage is Something Wicked This Way Comes, an annual event that will be staged three nights and one afternoon from October 29–31. Experience a mixed bag of works by Edgar Allan Poe, Edward Gorey, Shirley Jackson and possibly Stephen King.

In the winter months, the backyard stage will shut down, although Monte intends to revive it come spring. To keep patrons entertained in the meantime, online programming is in the works. But, she says, “I’m really hesitant about this. I know everybody has leapt on this big bandwagon to create content for the internet. I’m not willing to do so unless we can create content that is of the quality that we are known for.”

Monte adds: “We are not video artists, we are live theater performers. Creating things on video is not our forte. So whatever we do create, we’re going to create carefully.” 

backyard stage

Katja Yacker. Courtesy of Joe Guerin

Monte hopes it will be possible to stage a production indoors this winter, which will depend on the severity of the virus and the ability to accommodate CDC and state government regulations. The Shakespeare Book Club, a Tuesday-night program currently offered virtually through November 24, may return for a winter session as well.

The 2020–2021 Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey season marks Monte’s 30th anniversary as artistic director. Before Covid-19 swept through the state, Monte was slated to direct four mainstage productions. A yearlong celebration of activities, including a gala, had been planned to commemorate her milestone. 

Despite the disappointment that came with canceling these events, Monte has found a silver lining. “To some extent, the pandemic has forced us to go back to the very basic stuff that made us want to be theater artists when we were kids to begin with. And I think that that has been a great gift.”

For Monte, working closely with the nine actors in Shaw! Shaw! Shaw! has been rewarding.

“I’m thrilled about that opportunity to work with them and watch them blossom over the past nine months,” she says. “If anything is going to be memorable about my 30th year here, it’s the very unusual opportunity to work with a group of actors on this kind of daily, really intense level—not something one gets to do very often.”

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