South Camden Theatre Company just opened what Producing Artistic Director Joe Paprzycki calls “a season of faith” with Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass.” The play, which runs through October 26, is one of Miller’s last and is rarely seen in the area.
Next up is another powerful story, “Agnes of God,” directed by Paprzycki and written for the stage by John Pielmeier. Following that is Joe’s work, “Fortune Cookies,” a story about friends, fate and fortune. And wrapping up the season is August Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” the eighth in a ten-play cycle that chronicles African American life in the US in the 20th century.
“One of our goals at SCTC,” he said, “is to present plays that an audience won’t see everywhere else.”
The word faith in the season’s tag line describes a common theme that runs through the plays. It also gets at the heart of the spirit and vision that has steered SCTC from its beginnings in the basement of Sacred Heart Church 10 years ago to its current home on the corner of 4th Street and Jasper Street—the very spot where Walt’s Café, the neighborhood bar owned and operated by Joe’s grandparents, Walt and Sue Evanuk, stood for nearly 50 years.
As a Camden kid, Paprzycki spent many hours at Sacred Heart Church in South Camden and developed a special relationship with the pastor, Michael Doyle. Knowing that Joe was a playwright, Doyle one day asked him why he had never presented one of his plays in his hometown.
“Where?” Paprzycki asked. “Here,” Doyle answered.
And that was all Paprzycki needed to get the ball rolling.
As a fundraiser, Paprzycki staged a reading of “Last Rites,” a play he had written based in place and content on Walt’s Café. The effort netted enough to construct a stage in the church basement, and from there the core of what would become South Camden Theatre Company took shape.
The next step was to convert the former Walt’s Café into a theater.
Sadly, the building had been empty for years and had sustained damage too severe to repair. What was intact, though, was the corner, the neighborhood, the connections and the memories. And that was enough for a new start.
Hosts of angels guided the process, according to Paprzycki. What began with Msgr. Doyle’s ideas and support continued with help from Helene Pierson and Heart of Camden, a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing the Waterfront South neighborhood, and Adolfo “Pepe” Piperno, whose Domenica Foundation works to restore communities through sustainable and collaborative development.
“It was like a dream come true,” Paprzycki said. “Imagine having a chance to build a theater on the same spot where my grandparents had their bar.”
South Camden Theatre Company opened the first season in their new home on September 10, 2010 with – you guessed it – “Last Rites.” When he introduced the play that night, Paprzycki told the audience, “You are now sitting in the same spot where the things that happen in the play took place 40 years ago.”
And that wasn’t the only fascinating aspect about that night. The date for the opening was chosen without much thought, Paprzycki told me. “It was the first weekend after Labor Day,” he said, “which is traditionally a good date to launch.”
But it turned out that there was a deeper meaning.
“I get a call from my mother,” Paprzycki says, “wondering why I picked September 10th for the opening.” He explained his reasoning and questioned why she asked.
She answered, “September 10th was your grandparents’ wedding anniversary.”
Going forward, Paprzycki and SCTC’s passionately dedicated staff and board members see a bright future.
“When we were first there, the blocks were filled with boarded-up buildings and there were kids running drugs on the streets,” Paprzycki said. “There was a concern that no one would come to a theater in that location.”
But things have changed dramatically. Paprzycki told me that most of Jasper Street is occupied, for example, and he also notes that the police are more active and responsive, which provides a greater sense of security for those who live and visit the South Camden neighborhood.
“At first,” Paprzycki said, “we’d get a few sort of scared-looking people coming to the shows.”
“But the next time they come, they bring another couple with them. Or they tell their friends and they come to the next production.”
“That’s how we have grown,” he said. “It’s really happening.”