By Madeline Orton
When director Jeremy Dobrish set out with actress/playwright Sandy Rustin to start Midtown Direct Rep, a repertory theater company comprised of the Broadway professionals residing in their area, they were surprised to find just how many of their South Orange and Maplewood neighbors take to the stage for a living.
“There are between 50 and 100 actors just in our company alone who are actively working on Broadway, and off-Broadway, and regionally,” Dobrish says. “Our goal really was to bring theater to this community being done by this community at a very, very professional level.”
Midtown Direct Rep takes its name from the Midtown Direct train line, which connects South Orange to New York City and is a trip company members are familiar with. The short distance from SOMa, as some call the South Orange/Maplewood area, to New York City makes it an ideal location for theater professionals like two-time Tony Award-winner Norbert Leo Butz, and Tony-nominee Christiane Noll, both of whom are members of Dobrish’s Midtown Direct Rep.
Danielle Ferland of Maplewood, who has appeared in numerous Broadway productions, is happy to perform so close to home. “It’s a great company because it gives people an opportunity to … stay involved in their community, which I think is so much a part of the arts. It’s not just about doing it somewhere else.”
For actors like Jim Ferris of Maplewood, who is currently in the cast of “The Lion King” on Broadway, performing here provides an opportunity to take on new challenges while working full-time.
“The lovely thing about having a full-time job in a Broadway show is that you have a place to go to six days a week,” Ferris says. “But as a performer, as an artist, you do want to spread your wings. … It’s exciting, it’s thrilling and that’s also what gives you your juice to go to your show and be better at what you do at work.”
It’s exciting for South Orange, too. Mark Packer, executive director of South Orange Performing Arts Center or SOPAC where Midtown Direct Rep is the theater company in residence, is just as happy to have them.
“It’s bargain basement prices to see professional Broadway actors and actresses doing readings and performances,” Packer says.
Including staged readings in their season in addition to full productions is part of what allows working artists to stay involved and has audiences so enthused.
“It’s sort of like being backstage in a way for a protracted period of time,” Packer explains. “You’re sort of seeing work in progress. That’s really exciting.”
“We have a great track record so far,” Dobrish shares proudly. “A lot of the plays we’ve done readings of have already gone on to some sort of future life.”
Packer is pleased to help bring these performances to SOPAC audiences. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for people in the SOMa community to experience superb cultural programming in their own backyard,” he says.
Midtown Direct Rep’s next staged reading, “The Drama Department,” will be performed this Sunday, July 14 at SOPAC.
Major funding for NJ Arts is provided by The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the F.M. Kirby Foundation.