Outside the Black Box: Theater Steps Off the Stage & Steps Into the Communities and Beyond

Participants are chalking the performance area for Luna Stage's "The Ground on Which We Stand." Credit: Luna Stage.

Part One of this Two Part Arts Beat “Inside the Black Box” explored Luna Stage and The Theater Project’s on-stage productions. Part Two looks at a sampling of each group’s activities outside the Black Box both locally and beyond.

The logistics were daunting: A cycle of performances repeated at eight half-hour intervals. Twelve playwrights. Eleven monologues, a song and a scene from a play. All planned to take place at eight sites along the one mile between Montclair’s historic Crane House on Orange Road and the rescued James Howe House on Claremont Avenue. Scripted tour guides were poised to lead the audience members as they walked from site to site, performance to performance.

Then the rains came — biblical proportion rains first forcing postponement and ultimately the transferring of the afternoon performances to indoors.

“We set up tents, but it wasn’t enough. Elm Street’s St. Paul’s Baptist Church stepped forward to shelter us,” said Ari Laura Kreith, Luna Stage’s Artistic Director who conceived, commissioned and directed “The Ground On Which We Stand.”

The piece was produced in collaboration with Crossroads Theater with advice from the Montclair African-American Heritage Society and Friends of the Howe House.

“The Ground on Which We Stand” Credit: Luna Stage.

Part of Luna’s five-year Underground Railroad series, “The Ground On Which We Stand” explores the compelling history surrounding the 1780 Howe House and how in 1831 it came to be the first house in Montclair owned by an African-American, James Howe. (Howe had been freed by manumission in 1817.) 

Now, Kreith and Luna Stage are working on a pared down version of the “The Ground” that will be presented as part of Luna’s 2023-24 Special Projects. It aims to travel to New Jersey schools and community group.

This is one example of the multiple ways our two area theaters walk off their Black Box stages and walk into the community. Here are more ways, first staying with Luna Stage and then turning to The Theater Project:

Since joining Luna Stage, Kreith has commissioned and directed 2018’s “Walking the Valley,” a series of short plays based on local history and interviews. It was presented both indoors and outdoors in the Valley Arts District, which Luna Stage anchors in the Orange/West Orange Valley.

There was also 2019’s “Heart of Orange” performances along Main Street in Orange, and the “Songs for Unsung Heroes,” a cycle of on-line songs celebrating local heroes. “Songs” premiered during the pandemic lockdown with “We Knead,” about Phil Serrani and the Orange Sanitary Bakery followed by “Burgers and Fries,” the thoughts of a West Orange diner cook.

Meanwhile, The Theater Project, which presents it main Black Box season at the Burgdorff Arts Center in Maplewood, similarly moves outside theater walls to address vital issues of local and national concern.

Black Lives/Blue Lives,” a piece spurred by George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests and counter-protests, travels state-wide. It came about when The Theater Project’s Artistic Director Mark Anthony Spina asked, “What can we as artists do?”

“The sides were screaming at each other. The divide between the community and police kept deepening.” Spina said, “All I could think was ‘No one is talking with one another. How do we seed dialogue, how do we seed change?’” 

Spina commissioned Black Lives/Blue Lives, two half-hour monologues, “What I Know” by Steve Harper and “What Cops Know” by Bill Mesce, Jr., to address this divide between race and policing. 

To date, “Black Lives/Blue Lives” has had over a dozen presentations in school classrooms and assemblies, libraries, colleges and historical societies. It seeks religious organizations and other community groups to join these ranks. There are both a PG version with modified language for younger students and a live on-line version. Its most recent presentations were two summer 2023 nights at Maplewood’s Burgdorff Art Center with experts leading post-performance discussions. Sponsored by the NJ Council of the Humanities, study and discussion guides help presenting organizations moderate their own conversations.

In Our Schools

Luna Stage has many widespread partnerships. It brings performances of its MainStage plays into South Orange-Maplewood’s Columbia High School and into Orange High School. Luna has a particularly strong relation with OHS, drawing on its student body among other schools as directors and performers for two enthusiastically received youth-produced summer plays. Scholarships for Luna’s educational and hands-on programs are funded by non-profits including The Orange Orphan Society, founded in 1854 to help disadvantaged youth throughout the Oranges and Maplewood.

Technology Expands Outreach

Both companies were also early adapters of technology to keep theater, spirits and conversation alive during the pandemic lock-down. The Theater Project went to Zoom performances of its annual “Think Fast” Short Plays Competition and has kept it there. “Rather than having to travel to New Jersey, playwrights and their area directors and actors can present from their homebase nationwide,” Spina said. 

TTP also now presents its “Young Playwright’s Competition” (YPC) winning plays on Zoom while continuing to mentor secondary school students face to face throughout New Jersey. “We send out invitations and information to over 800 educational facilities statewide,” Spina said.  The teenaged writers not only see professional productions of their works but also participate in on- line discussions.

Many of the students have ongoing relations with TTP: “Winning the YPC opened up a network of generous artists, writers, actors, producers, and friends, all ready to help me embrace theatre as a passion,” said Brennan Columbia-Walsh, now an undergraduate at Yale University and then a student in Montclair. Columbia-Walsh’s 2021 first place short play was also given a live performance by TTP this past July.

Tune in anytime to TTP’s PODCASTS (“The Theater Project Thinks About…”) with conversations on the larger world of performance. Recent topics have included finding work in voice overs, write better right now and scenic design.

As to Luna, Kreith directed me to “2.2 Square Miles of Soul: Voices of Orange 2021,” a partnership between Luna and Ping Chong and Company that virtually presented this original documentary in spoken word, poetry and song.  “2.2 Square Miles” delved into real life experiences of Orange residents, weaving a vital story of individuals, the city and larger forces.

Similarly, “Rift, or White Lies,” a Luna Stage world premiere opening February 8, 2024 during its upcoming MainStage season, had a virtual origin. The work started out with playwright Gabriel Jackson Dean sharing the real-life texts–some delivered in real time to participants’ cell phones–between Dean, a left-leaning writer and his brother, an incarcerated convicted murderer and alt-right adherent. 

Student Performances

TTP’s Theater Project, Jr. works with students to present a yearly JUKEBOX cabaret of original material.   

Luna continues its extensive offering of programs for students of all age with new classes beginning September 12 as well as their Summer Camps and Conservatories with funding and scholarships available. Its in-house Actors Studio with Theo Devaney is highly sought.  

Both companies are far more affordable than you might think with some TTP performances for free and others with tickets prices comparable to your local multiplex. Luna Stage is similarly sometimes free or having an underwritten, sliding scale fee structure starting at $5. 

Theater in the here and now, whether in the Black Box or out, in person or virtually, invites us to think and rethink, to share ideas and to experience other lives and perspectives. Luna Stage and The Theater Project both invite us in and come to us.

Accept the invitation.

Q&A: The Why of Moving Out into The Community

Arts Beat: Why do your companies move outside the theater walls?

Kreith: “We think of our theater building as porous. We know that asking someone to enter the theater is asking them to take the first step. We are saying, ‘You don’t have to walk in and make the commitment. We will come to you,’” Kreith said.

Spina: “We are always asking, “How can we best reach and serve the larger community? How do we promote conversations? Where do we need to go, what means do we need to use in order to both serve our existing community and to find new audiences, new artists,” Spina said

Theater Schedule

Here is a preview of some of what will be presented starting in mid-September. Consult www.lunastage.org and www.thetheaterproject.org for more information and updates.


WESTPHALIA by Helen Banner (Oct 19 – Nov 12)

World Premiere

In a wild new robotic economy, AI determines people’s right to buy or sell their own citizenship. A family descended from the Pilgrims has fallen on hard times. Will they be allowed to cash out and go somewhere new? An imaginative, surprising perspective on national borders and our own humanity.

RIFT, OR WHITE LIES by Gabriel Jason Dean (Feb 8-Mar 3)

Commissioned World Premiere

Playwright Gabriel Jason Dean’s brother is a convicted murderer who has become a high-level member of the alt-right. The two shared a childhood, but what is their responsibility to each other in the future? How did their paths diverge? Is it possible to love someone whose beliefs you hate?

QUEEN OF THE NIGHT by travis tate (Apr 25-May 19)

Regional Premiere

Ty would prefer to go “glamping” but his father has taken him to the middle of the woods. The night before Ty’s mom remarries, the two men fight bears, their past, and one another in playwright travis tate’s exploration of masculinity and queerness through the lens of multi-generational Blackness.

TRICH by Becca Schneider (Dec 1-Dec 10)

Regional Premiere.

Meet Becca: a teenage girl with a secret in plain sight that no one wants to talk about. Years later, she’s still grappling with the consequences. Trich tells an intimate, surprisingly funny story about mental health, isolation, and forging a path toward recovery

A TROJAN WOMAN adapted by Sara Farrington from Euripides (Mar 8-Mar 17)

National Premiere

*In association with The Tank NYC. In a flash of modern warfare (Ukraine? Afghanistan? Vietnam? Poland? Hiroshima?), a mother loses her child. She becomes a Trojan woman, compelled to embody every iconic character in Euripides’ classic play.

Luna Stage also holds its evening New Moon Reading Series and in 2023-24 will present two additional special projects. Check the Luna Stage website and updates to this article for details and updates.


THE NEW PLAY READING SERIES resumes at 2pm, September 23 and takes place the third Saturday afternoon of each month this fall. Admission is free, advanced registration is required. The readings and discussions are held at the Cranford Community Center. First up is Bill Mesce, Jr.’s THE ADVOCATE, part of his award-winning trilogy of WW II novels. THE ADVOCATE explores the changing tactics of warfare through the lens of a military tribunal evaluating a pilot who appears to have shot down one of his own men.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE will be presented over Thanksgiving Weekend. This live play presents the 1940s Lux Radio Theater’s radio dramatization of the classic 1946 film, complete with before-your-eyes radio sound effects. Presented annually, many theatergoers make it central to their yearly holiday tradition. Check website for TBA location, dates and times.


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