Plays By Neighbors raises funds for local residents experiencing food insecurity

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SUMMIT, NJ — Plays By Neighbors, a fundraising theatrical event, recently took place at Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit. The event featured original short plays written and performed by professional New Jersey artists.

Produced by Nick Gandiello for Neighborhood Beacon, donations came from attendees to help Springfield and Union residents who are challenged with food insecurity, while also supporting local food businesses.

Gandiello has worked as a playwright and teaching artist around the county. He’s currently the education and play festival manager at Premiere Stages at Kean University. Playwrights of the show are Melissa Toomey, Christian Mendonca and Lucien Edme. Inspired by prompts provided by the community, they had 24 hours to write a short play. Actors rehearsed the day of the performance.

The theme of the plays was “the importance of sharing a meal.” Each play used the words “beloved” and “living for each other.”

“I really drew on folks that had big hearts and big spirits from the New Jersey theater community,” Gandiello said. “It’s really inspiring and reassuring. Everyone I asked was enthusiastic about the idea. People want to help others. We’re working. We have responsibilities. Given the chance to slow down and help others, people will jump at the chance. Folks are struggling to make ends meet. Folks need a little support. They had more resources before the pandemic. Empower them and give them a chance to do what we all want to do, get a meal with their family.”

“It’s exciting for us, helping neighbors,” said Stephanie Faison, lead neighborhood beacon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit.

Toomey said, “It was a lot of fun.”

Edme added, “It felt good to push ourselves as playwrights.”
Each short play opened with an acoustic guitarist playing songs appropriate to the themes of the plays such as “Hungry Heart” by Bruce Springsteen, “Yesterday” by The Beatles and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by the Four Seasons.

The plays were fun and family friendly — though not exactly geared toward children. “A little more adult in content, but suitable for a general audience,” Gandiello said. Themes included: a restaurant in a metropolis age of artificial intelligence; interracial dating; generation gaps; and working in retail, unable to be home for the holiday. The show was very well-received, with laughter, loud applause and standing ovations.

Gandiello and his wife, Kellie Clifford-Gandiello, began attending Beacon services online in 2021. They joined the church via the YouTube broadcast. The pandemic was lingering and they still weren’t getting out much. The couple live in Springfield.

“We had our baby, waited until he was six months old before attending live Beacon,” Gandiello said. “We were looking for something that would feel inclusive of all different types of people, something really welcoming of all faiths. That’s something we felt was important.” As first-time parents, they were also impressed by the programming for children.

At the beginning of this year, Gandiello started getting involved with the community groups.

To learn more about Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation, visit:

Editor’s note: By request of the producer, Nick Gandiello, the volunteer actors remain anonymous in this story.

Photos by Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta