Even if you have the money and a truckload of passion, you don’t want to just slap a theater production together, open the box office and hope for the best. It takes months of planning. Maybe years. You want to start out on the right foot, get people interested in your production and get them interested enough to want to come back for more productions.
Peter Bisgaier and his two partners, Judi Parrish and Jennifer Zefutie, hope that’s the case with their theater company, the Pegasus Theatre Project.
Bisgaier, a West Windsor resident, says he knows all about approaching theater productions the wrong way. Back in the 1990s, while living in New York, he and a friend did a very characteristically mid-20s thing to do: they started a theater company with one show. It was based on the film Reservoir Dogs, and it got plenty of attendees. Naturally, Bisgaier thought it was because he was running a cool new theater company. People showed up for their first production—it made sense they’d come back for the next one. That wasn’t the case.
“They didn’t come back because it wasn’t Reservoir Dogs,” says Bisgaier.
With the Pegasus Theatre Project, which is his second real try at starting and running a lasting theater company, Bisgaier believes that he, Parrish and Zefutie have taken the time to do it right. The company, which became the official resident theater company at the West Windsor Arts Center last year, is now gearing up for its second production, a play called Art to be performed at the WWAC on Friday, March 31, Saturday, April 1 and Saturday, April 8.
None of the three partners are beginners in theater by any stretch. The trio has about 90 years of collective theater experience, acting, producing, directing and technical. Half of that experience belongs to Parrish, a Ewing resident who has spent 45 years working on and in productions.
‘Being able to spend more time doing theater was one of my main reasons for retiring.’
Parrish—who has worked as as a director, musical director, lighting designer, set designer, sound designer, technical director, stage manager and actor—is retired from a 30-year career working for the state Department of Transportation.
“Being able to spend more time doing theater was one of my main reasons for retiring,” says Parrish, who has a degree in music education from Trenton State College (the College of New Jersey) and started out performing and teaching vocal. When her temporary position as a music teacher in Hamilton fell through, she got a job with the state and stayed with music, and with theater, on the side.
Zefutie, a resident of Cranbury, has been a theater artist for nearly 20 years as an actor, director, producer and teacher. She has appeared in more than 30 plays and numerous short and feature length films, corporate videos and industrials. She taught English and drama at St. John Vianney High School in Holmdel, where she developed the drama curriculum and tripled the budget for the Performing Arts Department.
Zefutie holds a degree in English Literature and drama from Lafayette College and a law degree from Seton Hall University School of Law. She is an alumna of The National Theatre Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut and has studied at the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia.
Bisgaier never had another vocation. Even as a kid in Haddonfield, he says, he never wanted to be a doctor one week and an astronaut the next. He just wanted to be an actor. His parents were supportive enough to get him acting lessons with a woman who taught in her house and was a conduit to bigger and better productions for kids.
He, inevitably, went to Los Angeles. The University of Southern California, to be exact, where he studied theater and realized in due time that he hated Los Angeles.
“It could be fun,” Bisgaier says. “But it was lonely.”
After Hollywood, he bopped around several states in the northeast and southeast. He landed in New York eventually, and jumped into his ill-fated theater company. He also met his wife, Corinna, there. They were both working waiting tables, only at different restaurants owned by the same guy.
“A friend I worked with came to me one day and said, ‘I just met the woman you’re going to marry,’” he says. A minor glitch was that Bisgaier had a girlfriend. But as it turned out, they were on the outs anyway. And when Peter met Corinna, his friend proved immediately correct. They hit it off.
The couple later married and tried to figure out a place to live. He liked the New York scene, even if it was exhausting, but “she was from the south and loved trees,” he says. They tried living in New Jersey, just outside of Manhattan, but that didn’t work, and about 13 years ago they settled in West Windsor, which is close enough to the theater hubs of New York and Philadelphia.
As an actor, he has appeared across the country in such roles as Jonathan Harker in Dracula (Delaware Theatre Co.), Faulkland in The Rivals (Horse Cave Theatre), the title role in The Nerd (Phoenix Theatre), Clive/Cathy in Cloud Nine (Green Room Theatre) and Ernie in Rumors (Montgomery Theater Company).
He has directed over 30 productions, most recently Picasso at the Lapin Agile. As a playwright, he wrote stage adaptations of Reservoir Dogs and the novel Choke by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), as well as several short plays and monologues.
He is currently working to compete his latest play, Climbing the Slide. His screenplay The Legend of Santa Claus: The Beginning has been optioned by AugustRoad Entertainment and is on its way to becoming a feature film.
Bisgaier is also the production manager at the West Windsor Arts Center, where he teaches many classes and camps on topics including acting, playwriting and filmmaking. It also gives him the opportunity to work alongside Corinna, who is the director of education for the West Windsor Arts Council, which is based at the center.
She has worked at the Arts Council since 2010. As director of education, she works to develop all of the arts council’s educational programs (classes, workshops, and camps), finds new teaching artists, and markets and evaluates all of its educational offerings.
She also manages the facility and all of its rentals and parties.
The couple has two daughters— Jessie, 10, and Monica, 6.
Apart from that gig waiting tables back in the day, Bisgaier hasn’t had another line of work outside theater. He knows how atypical that is, and he’s grateful he’s managed to make his way through life doing the one thing he’s always wanted to do.
The genesis for the Pegasus Theatre Project sprang from a mutual desire to do “high-quality theater,” says Parrish. She added that she had worked with both Bisgaier and Zefutie in various productions in the past, and that Bisgaier and Zefutie had met while working together in a production.
“It was during that production that Jennifer and Peter started really talking about forming a new company,” Parrish said. “As they discussed it more, they realized that they needed a third person with some different skill sets and asked me to join them in developing the company.”
Parrish says that when Bisgaier and Zefutie asked her to be part of the burgeoning Pegasus Theatre Project, “I jumped at the chance.” While she brings a metric ton of performance experience, Parrish says her biggest contribution is her technical ability.
Parrish said that their planning for Pegasus began in earnest in July 2015. By the beginning of 2016, they had formalized their plans and were able to incorporate in April 2016. They formalized their relationship with the West Windsor Arts Center at that time, and received IRS nonprofit status in July 2016.
Parrish’s organizational experience over the years working for the state also helped Pegasus through those beginning stages. During her years at the DOT, Parrish worked for various offices and divisions, including section chief of the Air Quality Planning Unit, managing the department’s responsibilities related to transportation sanctions and air quality conformity lapses.
‘There has to be something in the play that triggers a response in the audience.’
Parrish says Pegasus rotates what the three principals will do on each project. She was the director of Pegasus’ inaugural production, Proof, which was performed last September. On the upcoming Art, she is the producer and the lighting, sound and set design person. Zefutie is the director and Bisgaier is an actor.
Bisgaier points out that people shouldn’t call him “an aspiring actor.” He’s a working actor, and it’s his job. In fact, one of the things he likes so much about Pegasus is that all people who work for a production will get paid.
“We’re paying everyone who works with us. We’d rather pay everyone and go under than survive by relying on all our actors to work for nothing,” he says.
Art (by French playwright Yasmina Reza) at it’s core is a comedy, Bisgaier says. A comedy that “doesn’t feel funny” as an actor. Which is good, because he needs to play it straight. The story revolves around a painting one friend buys that starts an increasingly nasty argument that brings up every possible wound into which to pour salt with two other friends, one of whom is played by Bisgaier.
The play, Bisgaier says, follows Pegasus’ mission statement to ensure that each production explores the human condition. While he says all art should do that, what it means to Pegasus is that all productions should consider certain questions, such as “What does it mean to be a human in society,” he says.
“There has to be something in the play that triggers a response in the audience,” Parrish says. It doesn’t have to be the same response, even within the same audience. It just needs to be something that “feels honest,” she says. Something that connects people by empathy or experience or just through pure emotion.
Bisgaier says future productions will try to walk the balance between providing provocative and entertaining productions. Nothing too heavily leaning to one side or another, and no big, famous plays like The Odd Couple.
“I love The Odd Couple,” he says. “But who hasn’t seen it.”
Walking the tightrope between experimental and familiar, provocative and funny, sweet and mean is something that gives Bisgaier the thrill of theater he’s spent his life surrounding himself with. And it keeps him in touch with all the many facets of the elusive-yet-prevalent human condition.
What does that really mean? Even he’s not sure. He just knows it’s like art in general.
“You know it when you see it,” he says.