By: Stefanie Sears
In March 2019, The Growing Stage: The Children’s Theatre of New Jersey located in Netcong prepares for its production of “Curious George: The Golden Meatball,” directed by Marketing Director Danny Campos and ran on the main stage from March 15-31. The shows here are all strictly family and child friendly and have been so since its conception.
Their mission is “to create a professional theatre company at which young people and their families could grow through the performing arts.”
“The Growing Stage is the only professional theatre company solely dedicated to young people and their families that has its own facility,” says The Growing Stage’s Founder/Executive Director Stephen L. Fredericks, “We are a member theatre of the Association of Actor’s Equity, and by being so we strive to produce quality theatrical experiences that can be appreciated and enjoyed by the entire family. Our Main Stage productions are unique in that we have adult artists work alongside young people in age-appropriate roles, providing them with a unique educational opportunity not found anywhere else in our state.”
Inspiration hit Fredericks after taking a Theatre for Young Audiences class at Arizona State University and meeting his mentor Don Doyl. Upon graduation, he debated about graduate school but opted to pursue The Growing Stage instead.
Thanks to the Chester Theatre Group, The Growing Stage’s history began in 1982 when they first opened with a show called “Code Breaker” at the Black River Playhouse in Chester.
However, “growing” is a key word here, for expansion was eventually crucial. They then took residence in the Williamson School building, which was owned by Chester Township, Chester Borough, and the Chester Board of Education, but realized that they could not keep that as their permanent home.
“We couldn’t afford their collective asking price, which started us on our journey to find the Palace,” explains Fredericks.
The Growing Stage has resided within the former Palace Theatre’s walls since 1995. The historic Palace Theatre was built in 1919 and served as an entertainment venue such as a silent movie and vaudeville house in its earliest years but had eventually fallen on hard times after the 1960s. From 1981 until 1994, it was a warehouse for a moving company until The Growing Stage purchased it in May 1995. Their first show there was “The Wizard of Oz” for which they received 1,200 audience members for six performances.
“At the time, The Growing Stage was in need of a home and the Palace Theatre was in need of a miracle – fortunately the two just came together naturally,” says Fredericks, “As an organization, the renovation and restoration of our home, the Palace Theatre has been a huge project.”
The Growing Stage has raised and invested over $3 million dollars back into the facility over the last 24 years.
“While this has been a great accomplishment though, providing our region with this unique performing arts resource has been our most rewarding, especially when you see the joy in the faces of our families after seeing one of our productions,” Fredericks adds.
In addition to “Curious George,” this year’s season also included “The Wizard of Oz” (a Growing Stage regular), “Babes in Toyland,” “John Henry,” and “A Better Place to Be.” In May they will be presenting “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.”
The Growing Stage is always looking for new ways to improve the theater experiences of their patrons. This spring they are planning three-hour Broadway Master Class Workshops for high school students led by Broadway artists. Also, this season they are adding Sensory Friendly performances for both “Curious George” and “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” Sensory friendly accommodations include dimmed house lights to give patrons the ability to move around and exit the theatre easily, bring your own snacks and drinks, limited crowds with open seating to allow space, reduced and consistent sound levels, designated “Quiet Areas,” and permission to use tablets and smartphones for communication.
“We’re always looking to increase our accessibility services to our patrons and as a children’s theatre, sensory friendly performances was always something we wanted to offer, so we were able to obtain funding for it through the New Jersey Theatre Alliance’s Stages Festival,” explains Campos, “Again, as the Children’s Theatre of New Jersey, we want to be able to provide theatre for the entire family. Accommodations are based on what other theatres have done, we’ve also attended workshops on sensory friendly productions too.”
Along with the Main Stage productions, throughout the school year The Growing Stage also offers a full range of educational programming, such as school performances and special events. Their most popular is the Summer Arts Day Camp.
The Growing Stage Summer Arts Day Camp program is designed for children entering kindergarten in the fall through students who have completed eighth grade by the June prior. Like the theatre’s common goals, the purpose of the Summer Arts Day Camp is to expose the youth to the performing arts and creative collaboration. This year’s Summer Arts Day Camp will take place July 8 to August 16.
The Growing Stage’s seasons always take into consideration the different age groups of their audiences and include a holiday themed show as well as a brand-new piece delivered through their New Play-Reading Festival, for which Campos serves as Director. Playwrights are welcome to submit their work.
“We’re looking for something aimed at young audiences that is fresh, new, exciting. New voices that we haven’t seen or heard on our stage yet,” Campos says.
In fact, there are plenty of opportunities for the community to get involved with The Growing Stage, such as costume and set construction, working backstage, ushering, selling concessions, distributing marketing materials, and assisting in the office or at special events.
On April 7, The Growing Stage will be hosting A Party at the Palace to kick off the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Palace Theatre. Tickets cost $60.00 per person or $100.00 per couple and refreshments include hors d’oeuvres by Krave Events, desserts by Café Pierrot, and complimentary drinks. According to a press release, it “will feature the talents of Growing Stage professional artists with special guests and surprises and a Silent Auction.”
“This adult only party supports the ongoing efforts of our theatre as well as ensures the rich history of our home, The Palace Theatre, only keeps getting written,” says Fredericks.