TheaterJuly 11, 2017


Life Is Strange at Open Arts PACFrom an entertainment options point of view, we live in an abundant world. Even for those of us outside of the city, there are more interesting things available than one can reasonably expect to see and do.

Yet, I never tire of discovering something new happening around me, even when it adds more selections to an already tough-to-choose-from list.

This feature focuses on the most recent additions to the list – PCM Theatre Company and the nonprofit education and performance venue, Open Arts PAC – two  Central Jersey gems now on my radar screen.

PCM is the cultural consummation of Constance Wilder-Wokoun (Creative Director) and Ken Britschge (Producer), two lovers of stories and words. Both have been with the theatre company since its beginnings in 2006 and helped guide it from a we-do-it-all endeavor to a company with a bevy of talented writers, actors, directors and crew presenting first-rate annual productions, and looking toward more.

One of the main things that sets PCM apart from others is that the company only puts on shows they have written themselves.

PCM Theatre“We determined that we wanted to be different,” Britschge said, “and so everything we present is an original work.”

Its current offering, “Life Is Strange 2,” is a perfect example. The original “Life Is Strange,” described on the company’s website as “a splendid mesh of comedy and drama, written and directed by local talent,” was first presented in 2015 and was, by all standards, a success.

This time around, the program features eight short plays from six writers and five directors, as well as a larger venue and three nights of performances instead of two.

As the website states, the themes of the one-acts run the gamut: “Binge-watching. Adult literacy. The love of books. Love in the social media generation. Hot sauce. Jigsaw puzzles. Self-esteem. A play-within-a-play.”

“The play-within-a-play is set in an East German antique store during the Soviet era,” said Britschge. “It pokes some fun at the differences between American and European plays.”

Life Is Strange at Open Arts PAC

And, for the piece that Britschge wrote, what started out to be the story of a man and woman discussing their favorite books turned in a completely different direction.

“The woman who ended up directing the play came into the audition process with an absolute open mind,” he said, “and she put her own particular spin on it.”

While most of the short plays are comedy, two of them take on more weighty subjects.

“One looks at teen angst – that painful situation when you are young and you don’t yet have a good sense of yourself.

“The other serious story explores the struggles of working-class people,” he said, “and their personal feelings and thoughts. It’s kind of a look at what’s happening in their minds while they go about the daily business of trying to create better lives for themselves.”

In its close-to-a-dozen years as a company, PCM has staged a variety of works, as evidenced by the fascinating timeline on their web site. But it is the one-acts, Britschge believes, that provide the most effective outlet for individual involvement by company members.

Life Is Strange at Open Arts PACFor the first few years, the two founders were doing the “lion’s share of the writing and directing,” he said. As time went on, though, it became apparent that others were ready to do more. “It seemed right to open up that opportunity.”

Britschge said it was at that point that “things really started to turn.”

“We all became more invested,” he said. “It was a much more collaborative atmosphere.”

This is good for the work and also good on a human level.

“There’s a lot of laughter and good times,” he said. “It’s gratifying to get a positive response to what you are doing on stage.

“That communal thing is special. It’s like ‘theatre crack’.”

In the beginning, seats in the theaters where PCM performed were primarily filled with familiar faces. “It was mainly family and friends,” said Britschge. “But as we transitioned into putting on larger pieces, our audience expanded, too.”

photo of the theater in Open Arts Performing Arts Center

With growth came the desire for more space. “We were always keeping our eyes open for places to do our shows.”

Last year, the stars aligned.

“One of the actors in our company attended a concert at the Open Arts Performing Arts Center in Bordentown, and suggested it might be a good spot for us,” said Britschge.

“It holds more than 100 comfortably, and the set-up is flexible. You can have a traditional arrangement, or you can bring in round tables and create a more intimate, cabaret-style feel.”

Open Arts also has ample parking, a nearby diner and arts instruction spaces in the other side of the building. “It even has dressing rooms,” Britschge said. It seemed like a good match.

Taniel Bennett-Howell, Executive Director at Open Arts, was equally enthusiastic. “Our space is ideal for a company like this. It’s the right size and in a central location,” she said. “And Open Arts knows the importance of supporting groups, like PCM, that produce new and original work.”

Aside from the benefits of performing in the physical building, Britschge and others at PCM are also pleased with the connection that has formed between their group and the folks at Open Arts.

“They have been a big help to us on many levels,” he said, “and we really enjoy working together.”

There is clearly mutual respect between PCM and Open Arts, and Britschge thinks that additional collaborations in the future are a good possibility. “We’ve both expressed interest in doing more together. The opportunities are definitely there.”

Bennett-Howell is of the same mind. She has been involved in theatre for nearly 20 years – she started by doing plays at her church – and her experience has given her a clear sense of what it takes to create something that works and is successful.

Open Arts logo image

“It’s all being passionate about the work you are doing,” she said. “That’s the key thing.”

In addition to being a wonderful place to perform and see a show, Open Arts is also home to the NJ Central Ballet, Rising Star Voice Studio and Leaping Dog Art Studio.

“You can walk into our space and you might hear music coming from one place, and the rhythm of dancers working through a routine from another, and actors rehearsing lines somewhere else,” said Bennett-Howell.

“If the arts are your passion,” she said, “You’ll get a high from it.”

 

PCM Theatre’s “Life Is Strange 2” at Open Arts Performing Arts Center in Bordentown on July 14-16 features eight short plays from six talented writers and the artistic vision of five different directors. For tickets and more information, visit www.openartspac.org or www.pcmtheatre.com.

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Shen Shellenberger
Shen Shellenberger

Shen’s been a Jersey girl for most of her life, other than living for a three-year stretch in Portland, Oregon, and six magical months in Tokyo. Shen loves the arts in all of its various forms – from the beauty of a perfectly-placed base hit to the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll – and has successfully passed on this appreciation to her three grown children. Shen’s most recent jobs include WXPN (1993-2001) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2003-present). Shen also has been a working freelancer for 25 years, and operated her own frame shop in Mt. Holly in the late-70s.