Theater Boot Camp

Princeton Summer Theater returns with an eclectic line-up for the dog days of June, July and August.

On Stage: New Jersey Listings
By: Matt Smith


Cliff Sofield and Erin Gilley in last year’s Princeton Summer Theater production, Barefoot in the Park. This season, Ms. Gilley will direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

   While some of their peers are off on European vacations and scuba-diving "internships" in the Caribbean, a select few Princeton University students have enlisted in boot camp — the two-and-a-half-month, dawn-to-dusk human-endurance test that is Princeton Summer Theater.
   Fifteen or so hardy souls have signed up for full-time positions with PST, each willingly accepting the near-impossible challenge of producing four main-stage shows and two for kids, also putting on a children’s theater clinic.
   "We work 10 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week," says company manager Elizabeth Berg. "And we have about three days off all summer. It might be a bit easier than that, but not much."
   Speaking last Friday morning in a cavernous lounge adjacent to the 189-seat Hamilton Murray Theater, Ms. Berg and two other board members, technical director Rebecca Simson and publicity director Patrick Miller, wore looks of cautious optimism when talking about the task at hand. All three were taking a break from the rigors of finals, and Ms. Berg and Ms. Simson from their involvement in last weekend’s Theatre Intime Student Playwright Festival.
   Ms. Berg, a sophomore from Ithaca, N.Y., was around for a portion of the PST season last year and saw the company manager position as an opportunity better than any "professional" summer job.
   "I could have arranged an internship in the theater as a second assistant stage hand, living in I don’t know where," says Ms. Berg, who will act in two productions and direct one of the children’s shows, The Fabulous Fable Factory. "This is the opposite — you get so much more experience instead of just working on a production."
   After nearly six months of preparation, dating back to the formation of the board in the winter, all the work will bear fruit June 20 when the PST opens its 29th season with Christopher Durang’s Baby with the Bathwater and continues with three other shows: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Fantasticks and How I Learned to Drive.
   Founded as Summer Intime in 1968, PST returned in 2001 following a two-year, $1 million renovation to the Hamilton Murray Theater. Nearly all of the company is made up of Princeton students, but one student is from Drew University in Madison, and business manager Erica Schlegel is a Westminster Choir College student. Production manager Nathan Freeman, a Princeton student, rounds out the managing board.
   Ms. Berg, Ms. Simson and Mr. Miller are all proud of the eclectic mix of this season’s shows, particularly relishing the selection of the first play, Baby with the Bathwater, Christopher Durang’s absurdist satire about a child whose parents are too polite to discover its true gender.
   Mr. Simson, a sophomore from Sweden, is busy planning sets with each show’s director. She is excited about an abstract, dreamy look planned for the second production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ms. Berg will play Puck in Shakespeare’s whimsical comedy, and Mr. Miller will take on the role of Demetrius.
   Next comes The Fantasticks, the venerable musical that just closed on Broadway in January after 42 years and 17,162 performances. Ms. Berg will play the role of the Mute, and Mr. Miller plays Mortimer in the PST staging of the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt classic.
   The summer’s most intriguing selection is the final production, How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a woman facing her abuse as a child with courage, compassion and humor.
   "The shows this year don’t fit into the traditional definition of comedy," Ms. Berg says. "They have funny elements but deal with important issues."
   Because the group is financially independent from Princeton University, PST is used to the real-life issues involved in financing summer theater. The group pays for all its production costs from ticket revenues, contributions and sponsors.
   "We’re not an official, university-sponsored group," says Mr. Miller, a junior from Wisconsin, "but they let us use the theater once Theatre Intime is done with it."
   One of the goals of this year’s managing board is increased interaction with the Princeton and Central Jersey theater-going community. Ms. Berg, Ms. Simson and Mr. Miller all joke that during the year they can go weeks without ever venturing across Nassau Street. They want to change perceptions on both sides.
   "There’s a huge theater-going audience that can support places like McCarter (Theatre)," Ms. Berg says. "This can be a way to bring people together."
The 29th season of Princeton Summer Theater: Baby with the Bathwater plays June 20-23, July 4-7; A Midsummer Night’s Dream, June 27-30, July 11-14; The Fantasticks, July 18-21, 25-28, Aug. 8-11; How I Learned To Drive, Aug. 1-4, 15-18. Performances: Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets cost $12, Thurs., Sun.; $10 seniors; $8 students. Tickets cost $14, Fri.-Sat.; $12 seniors; $10 students. Family Series: The Trial of Goldilocks, July 6, 13; The Fabulous Fable Factory, Aug. 10, 17. Performances: 11 a.m., 2 p.m. Tickets cost $5; free under age 3. Theater workshops for children: July 12-Aug. 16, Fri. 1-4 p.m. $25 per session; $120 for six sessions. For information, call (609) 258-7062.