Theater Project in Union looks back on a year like no other

The cast and crew of The Theater Project’s holiday show included, top row, from left, Gary Glor, Jeff Maschi, Andre De Sandies and Matt McCarthy; second row, from left, Scott Cagney, Terri Sturtevant, Will Budnikov and Anna Gundersen; third row, from left, Aubrey McCarthy, Mark Spina, Blake Visentini and Shanjala Irving; and bottom row, from left, Luca Visentini, Jim Clancy, Valerie Stack Dodge and Kelley McAndrews.

UNION, NJ — This year brought seemingly endless challenges to the theater community, from Broadway to grassroots theaters all around the world. Since the COVID-19 shutdowns in March, independent theater companies, including The Theater Project in Union, have had to play by a whole new set of rules. The Theater Project adapted to the new reality by pivoting to digitally engage its patrons and the arts community at large.

Artistic Director Mark Spina said The Theater Project was “off to a running start” in January 2020. Having just moved to its new home in Union, TTP was running its monthly new play–reading series, “Opening Nights in the Afternoon,” and had just wrapped up its one-act–play competition. “Black Lives/Blue Lives,” comprising two monologues — “What I Know” by Steve Harper and “What Cops Know” by Bill Mesce Jr. — offering perspectives on police/civilian dynamics, had also been launched.

Preparations were being made for what would surely be a busy summer, featuring plays reflecting on the New Jersey experience by three N.J. playwrights: Mesce, Mary Jane Walsh and National Black Theater resident playwright Tylie Shider.

That all came to a halt when the pandemic hit, forcing the organization to turn to other ways of getting material out. In April, TTP moved “Opening Nights in the Afternoon” to Zoom.

From there, The Theater Project took the summer season online, beginning with Marc Palmieri’s “Streaming Passion” on April 26. June through August brought four more virtual productions, including a Zoom production of the “Black Lives/Blue Lives” program — especially relevant, given this summer’s social unrest.

TTP also moved its youth programs online. These included the ARK Program, which matched actors with children ages 6 to 13 on Zoom to provide reading enrichment, and Theater Project Jr., a summer workshop series culminating in a performance and a Young Playwrights event in the fall.

Fall and winter saw virtual productions of “Dracula” and “A Cracked Christmas Carol,” and this year’s 5K run/walk fundraiser was self-scheduled and socially distanced.

As always, The Theater Project rounded out the year with a production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play.” This holiday season, though, audience members gathered around their computer screens to experience this holiday tradition from the safety of their homes. Because the play focuses on harnessing the power of community in difficult times, there was perhaps no better way to ring out a challenging year.

Despite all the obstacles 2020 year brought, TTP rose to the occasion, fostering community through the arts, providing opportunities for playwrights and artists on the rise, and renewing its commitment to serving New Jersey with groundbreaking theater. Now, the organization looks ahead to 2021 with the hope that it can finally put on the “season that almost was.” The company sold more than 1,000 tickets to its online events in the last nine months, which shows that people need the arts and, even in the most trying times, will rise up to support them.