By Samantha Sciarrotta
Taniel Bannett-Howell’s life in theater started with a handful of popsicle sticks and some felt.
Bennett-Howell, the executive director of the Open Arts Performing Arts Center in Bordentown, grew up one of four siblings. The only girl in her family, she sometimes played alone and entertained herself by making miniature puppets out of popsicle sticks, putting on private performances of plays she wrote herself.
When she was 9 or 10, she decided she wanted to perform publicly. She asked her aunt to make fliers advertising the show, which she planned on putting on at the library. She selected a few records to use as her score. The young Bennett-Howell got nervous, though, and didn’t end up going through with it.
“I was so scared,” she said. “Of course, I wasn’t ready for a show. But my aunt just wanted to help my imagination grow.”
That exactly what Bennett-Howell and Open Arts PAC development manager Brian Baker hope to accomplish with the theater, located on Route 130. The facility has been around for over 15 years but has changed hands a few times. It’s been known as the Open Arts PAC since August 2011. Bennett-Howell got involved in January 2015, and Baker signed on in January of this year.
“Imagination is a very important part of all this,” Baker said. “We’ve sort of lost that. We’re tied to our devices. When you come to something like this, it’s different. You have a kid who comes here with the idea that they might be interested in [the arts], and their participation in a workshop that Taniel does can open up a world of possibilities for them.”
The PAC hosts concerts, plays, musicals, open mic nights, dance performances and more. Next on the calendar is a talent show, set for Saturday, June 24, 2017 at 7 p.m. The talent show, sponsored by Investors Bank, is open to singers, dancers, rappers, poets, comedians, musicians and magicians ages 8 to 18, and auditions will be held on Saturday, June 3 at noon and Wednesday, June 7 at 7 p.m. Cash prizes will be given to first, second and third place winners.
The nonprofit PAC already has three resident companies —Rising Stars Voice Studio, the Central NJ Ballet Theatre and Leaping Dog Art Studio—as well as an in-house theater troupe and intern program. Baker and Bennett-Howell came up with the idea for the talent show while brainstorming about different ways to get the community even more directly involved with the theater, and they both thought it would be the perfect avenue.
They also hope to expose residents to everything the center offers, like youth theater workshops and training in lighting, set design and stage management. The PAC aims to be a facility that provides opportunities in the arts for children who might not otherwise get them. Not all schools have the resources to sustain theater and music programs, Baker said.
“It’s proven that [the arts] enhance children as far as their academic level,” Bennett-Howell said. “It increases their study habits. It gets their brains moving. It even helps out with behavioral issues and discipline. The arts are so valuable for young people today.”
Bennett-Howell, a Ewing resident, is entirely self-taught in theater and really started to delve into her passion for it 16 years ago as part of her then-church. It rekindled, coincidentally, with puppets. Her pastor handed her a box of puppets, hoping that she could get some of the ministry’s kids involved with a production. She researched puppeteering and ministry and ended up directing many performances at the church.
She soon started writing her own stage plays, first starting at her church and then growing beyond that space. She founded Zyon Ministries, a faith-based performing arts group that specializes in stage plays, short skits and pantomime. That brought her to the PAC for the first time several years ago, and she immediately fell in love with the space. It was too small for what she was looking for at the time, but she came back in 2014 to host a poetry slam.
She returned again in 2015 when she was asked to come on as a house managing intern. Bennett-Howell, it turns out, was a perfect fit. She was promoted to marketing manager three months later and became the executive director in January of this year.
“I want to invest in what I feel like my purpose is, and that is theater,” she said.
A similar route led Baker, a Bordentown resident, to the PAC. A former journalist and New Jersey Education Association lobbyist, he always had a passion for creative writing, too. At his first newspaper job, Baker’s editor at the time wrote a screenplay for an episode of Hawaii Five-0. Baker read it and immediately felt the urge to write one himself.
From then, he nurtured a passion for the arts. Baker, now retired, was having dinner at Mastoris one night when he saw the Open Arts PAC’s marquee—designed by Bennett-Howell, who also owns her own graphic design business, it caught his eye. He had driven up and down Route 130 countless times but hadn’t noticed it until Bennett-Howell’s design went up. He decided to call the theater and find out what the deal was.
Baker introduced himself and gave a little bit of his background. He wanted to volunteer somehow, maybe as an usher or box office worker. Bennett-Howell, though, was impressed with his qualifications and asked for a resume —they were in the market for a development manager, she said. The two say it was fate.
“I thought this was a good opportunity to get in this kind of an atmosphere where I would be inspired and also learn more,” he said. “It’s a great learning environment. In terms of getting other people involved, community theater really is a great environment for that. It’s not just entertainment. It’s an educational experience.”
Through her ministry work, Bennett-Howell has a good deal of experience working with school-age children. She’d be in charge of productions using between 60 and 100 students, so she was eager to get back into teaching theater at the PAC. Her first venture this year was a 10-week acting workshop for kids.
The course covered acting, improv and character study, as well as other aspects of being a performer, like interview techniques, resume construction and stage managing. Some of the children, Bennett-Howell says, went on to join up with some of the PAC’s resident companies. Next year, Bennett-Howell hopes to host these workshops three or four times a year.
“It’s exciting to see students who are learning this actually getting in front of the lights to do it,” she said. “They have so much fun. It’s like watching a baby grow.”
The same goes for adults who want to get involved with community theater, Baker said. They provide education at all levels of experience from the ground up.
“One of the things that Taniel and I have talked about is that we really want this to be the kind of place, sort of a hub of cultural activity for the Bordentown area, and provide opportunities for people who maybe got into theater when they were in college, or they got involved in elementary, middle or high school,” Baker said. “They still have this feeling like they want to do something. They can come here.”
Community theater, he added, is the perfect venue for exploring what might be a hidden talent in a professional environment. The connection between community members onstage and in the audience gives performances a spark that others might not have.
“People don’t do it for the money,” Baker said. “It’s not like a Hollywood movie star. They also don’t have to network and compete and go through all that sort of thing. It’s people with passion. It’s children who want to explore. They have an interest in it, and they get involved. We have a facility right in the community where you can come and do your thing.”
More information about the Open Arts PAC, including talent show audition registration, performance schedule and internship opportunities, can be found online at openartspac.org.