Julie Ellen Prusinowski
Julie Ellen Prusinowski’s nearly 50-year-long career in the arts has been fulfilling—she’s worked with everyone from Angela Lansbury to Jon Bon Jovi and has experienced just about every aspect of theater work from usher to costume mistress to actor to producer—but one of her most valuable theater experiences involves a single stool in the center of a stage.

A Lawrence resident, Prusinowski was directing a production of Closer Than Ever starring Philadelphia theater mainstay Mary Martello. Martello’s character performed a song in what Prusinowski described as the first quiet moment in an otherwise rousing musical. Because of the song’s personal nature, Prusinowski wanted an intimate setting: just a stool in the middle of the stage, no props, no choreography. Just a seated Martello and her voice.

“We tried different things, but we always went back to the stool,” Prusinowski said. “Every single night, she did this song. You could hear the silence in the audience before the huge crack of applause, half of the audience in tears. It was the right move. Standing back and watching that every night was thrilling to me because I knew my insticts were correct in setting it that way.”

They’re instincts that have been developed over a long career doing as much theater work as possible, and that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Prusinowski has been honored numerous times for her work over the years, most recently with the South Jersey Cultural Alliance Lillian Levy Standing Ovation Award for her contributions to the arts in the region in May.

Prusinowski knew Levy, the former New Jersey State Council on the Arts president—Prusinowski herself worked for the council and served as its director of programs and services for nearly a decade—so the award was another career highlight for her.

“She was a mentor,” Prusinowski said. “She was very tiny, 4-foot-nothing and weighed, like, 12 pounds soaking wet. But she was was powerful. She was soft-spoken, but her words carried weight. She was certainly someone to emulate and to look up to. It’s an honor to get any kind of award, but one’s that named in her honor, I felt it was a double honor for me.”

Prusinowski’s career in the arts got started at the Valley Forge Music Fair near her hometown of Devon, Pennsylvania, a suburb just to the west of Philadelphia. She worked as an usherette and got to see a show every night for a week straight.

“That was really eye opening because you then start to learn what the difference is between audiences, how actors play on a matinee versus an evening show,” she said.

She then worked her way to a backstage position, but her first big break came a few years later. When she was 19, Prusinowski landed a job as Angela Lansbury’s costume mistress on a three-month touring production of Mame.

It was her first real exposure to a big name in a professional setting, and Lansbury did not disappoint. Prusinowski, 63, said the actress never skipped a rehearsal, even while practicing in the dead of summer in a tent with no air conditioning. She had performed in the show on Broadway for years, so she knew the material well, but she still showed up and worked with the other actors. And that stuck with Prusinowski.

“It said that this is work,” she said. “This is my job, and people are relying on me to do it to the best of my ability. And that was a good lesson to learn early. You get seduced by the glamour of show business. You think somehow [celebrity] is going to exempt you from having to work. In reality, you sometimes have to work harder. I learned a great deal about being organized and focused. Those are all great qualities to take into the arts because nothing comes easy.”

And focus she did. Prusinowski spent summers doing stock theater and studied theater at West Chester University (then State College) after being a part of the first graduating class at Archbishop John Carroll High School for Girls in Radnor, Pennsylvania. She earned a masters from West Virginia University and a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh.

She taught theater for a time, but she put teaching on hold when she decided to go back to school and started working for the American Dance Machine in 1978. From there, Prusinowski worked in New York City producing shows, and then moved to the Foundation Theater in Pemberton in 1983—what brought her to New Jersey.

After 14 seasons at Foundation, she worked at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank. The State Arts Council was her last stop. There, she not only gave out grants, but also worked with new and existing organizations, advising them and offering assistance.

Prusinowski has acted, directed, produced, built sets and just about everything else in between. She prefers producing and directing now, but having worked in so many different departments has given her invaluable insight, she said.

“I don’t think you can be a director without understanding what it takes to be an actor, the roles of your designers, your choreographer, your musical director and all those other people that you interact with,” she said. “As a director, you need to orchestrate all of that. All the work I did backstage for so many years was very valuable. When I sat down to talk to my production manager or my designers, I knew what I was talking about, and they knew that I knew.”

Carol Kehoe, an actor and owner of Hopewell Antiques, worked with Prusinowski at Foundation. She realized almost immediately how knowledgable and well-rounded Prusinowski was.

“She created a home base for actors,” Kehoe said. “Arists look for community. When you have a person like her who has done so meany different aspects of theater, she knows the business. She was able to bring in people that created a great work environment. Lighting, scenic, tech—all people who worked for her over and over and over. She gave them room to grow and explore. She creates that with everyone.”

But that’s just how theater works, Prusinowski said.

“Nothing you do is by yourself, even if you’re a monologuist,” she said. “You can write it and perform it, but somebody’s got to light it, direct you a little, add some music. You can’t really do it yourself. The ability to be part of a team and work as a team, be able to be a leader and a follower, is a very good skill in pretty much anything else you do. I always liked working with theater people because they understand that concept more than anyone.”

Prusinowski also gleaned some of those qualities from her parents, she said. Her father, Joseph, was a salesman and her mother, Julia, did scretarial work and owned a flower shop in Devon, and both always supported her ventures into the arts.

Both worked hard—that work ethic came from being raised during the Great Depression, she noted—and they knew that “a job was a job.” Prusinowski has met and spoken with uncertain parents of kids who want to pursure a career in the arts, but her own parents never felt that way.

“Whatever you wanted to do, they thought that you could do it,” she said. “The fact that I was being paid for my work carried a lot of weight. They knew early on that theater was a job. They saw that I was having success and being paid to do it, which I think made a difference.”

Now, Prusinowski is enjoying retirement by spending time with her sister, Judy, and brother, Joe. She has been catching up with old friends, and she also does a lot of work with the Lawrence Library, including teaching classes directing the One Act Play Festival.

“It gives the playwright a chance to hear their work with actors in a little bit of a directed study, and it gives the actors a chance to work on new material,” she said. “It gives the audience usually a couple of good laughs, maybe a tear or two. It’s become a really looked forward to event at the library. It continues to grow.”

Smaller theater experiences like the One Act Play Festival are what hooked Prusnowski—it’s important to foster them, she said, and she hopes to continue to do that even into retirement.

That shouldn’t be a problem, said Kehoe. Prusinowski’s experience and willingness to greet new ideas is perfect for young and new artists.

“She is very open to different ideas,” she said. “A lot of times, you can get in the arts people who are critical of other work, but she was accepting. She didn’t act like she was the person that knew it all. Good artists are always open to that kind of thing. She does it to create community. That is really a gift.”