This article was originally published in the October 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
Passage Theater in Trenton is experiencing a passage of its own.
While June Ballinger is stepping down after 22 years as artistic director and successor C. Ryanne Domingues is working alongside her to the end of the year, both are confident the capital city’s only nonprofit professional theater will continue to attract the diverse audiences that reflect Trenton itself.
Domingues, for her part, has never liked doing theater in a vacuum. In 2004 she and four theater artist friends from Maine’s Portland Stage Co. — where she held a directing and dramaturgy internship — decided to start a theater company.
“We sat in my apartment and asked ‘Why do we want to do theater?’ We came back with the answer that we wanted to make a genuine impact on our community; to help them do more than just think about the issues in our society. We wanted to help them find concrete, active ways to make a difference,” she says.
“We banged out a mission, and Simpatico Theatre Project was born. I was 22. We read a book about starting a nonprofit and moved to Philadelphia in 2005.”
Domingues directed the company’s first play, “Stop Kiss” by Diana Son, a play that centers on a hate crime against two women who share a kiss. As she did with every subsequent show, Domingues connected it to a nonprofit to expand its message. She knew she was on the right track when a call to the box office (i.e. the phone in her apartment) was from a male who said he saw the play and wanted to start a self-defense class for the women at his workplace.
Subsequently Domingues received her MFA in directing in 2013 from the University of California, Irvine. There in 2012 she directed “Mother Courage,” Bertolt Brecht’s timeless play about war and its profiteers. “It changed the way I direct,” she says. “We began incorporating the technical and design elements of the production very early on, enabling the actors to interact with the set, light, and sound designs throughout rehearsal rather than waiting until later in the process. It allowed the design of the piece to truly become another character in the play, and it gave the actors a much larger box of tools to choose from when communicating. After that production, I think my work became much more cohesive.”
Following graduate school and two years in Los Angeles, she returned to Philadelphia, where she spent two seasons as the external relations director at the Wilma Theater, successfully working in fundraising. She also did some freelance directing and self-producing at the Drake Theatre.
Meanwhile, Passage, which was founded in 1985, had become a mainstay in the Trenton arts community. Ballinger arrived in 1995 following a career as an actor and participant in New York’s Ensemble Studio Theater (known for innovation) and the 52nd Street Project that builds self-esteem in local youth. She came to Trenton to create a similar educational State Street Project for Passage Theater when her husband, Michael Goldstein, moved to Princeton as CEO of an internet start-up. (He is now a Trenton real estate developer.)
“I came with a mission and a vision to create a theater where people of different cultural backgrounds would sit together under one roof and witness their stories on the stage — stories that share our common humanity,” says Ballinger. “I saw theater as a social healer.”
Ballinger can look at accomplishments: featuring many New Jersey playwrights such as John Sayles, Bill Mastrosimone, Leslie Ayvazian, Seret Scott, Yusef Komunyakaa, Russell Davis, David Lee White, Caridad Svich, and others. She has partnered with White to craft plays from oral histories.
“You constantly reshape your mission to reflect the needs of the community,” she explains. “You try to get ahead of the zeitgeist of society’s issues. Our plays deconstructed what Trenton is about, and who the people are.”
To confront the issues of race in Trenton, Ballinger and White created “Profiles” (2013-’14 season) after two years of interviews of groups “on the edge of society. We did it as a workshop with a cast that blended local community actors with professionals.” Passage addressed mental health issues in the city through two plays by White, “Panther Hollow” (2015-’16) and “Fixed” (2016-’17).
But it has been the conversations that stand out — not talkbacks but conversations — with actors, community representatives, and faith-based representatives. “Our audiences love participation and to feel part of solving the problem,” says Ballinger. There is an engagement board in the lobby for those who don’t want to speak up.
There have been times audiences seem to want “a full out comedy” — though even the comedies have shown some element of topical relevance, such as Ayvasian’s “Out of the City,” which addressed seniors finding intimacy after years of marriage.
Ballinger has planned Passage’s 2017-’18 season, which will open with a co-production between Passage and Luna Stage in West Orange. “Paradise” by Laura Maria Censabella deals with a research partnership between a disgraced biology teacher and his Muslim American student. It runs October 5 through 22. The season will continue with Richard Hoehler’s “I of the Storm,” March 9 to 18. Finally, Passage will present the New Jersey Prison Cooperative’s “Caged,” a new play about the human costs of mass incarceration of African-American men. Community dialogues will lead up to this production.
Domingues, who will plan the 2018-’19 season, will be listening and learning.
Ballinger’s decision to step down took root three years ago. “I was sitting in the box office looking at an old newspaper article about me as artistic director from 1997,” she recalls. “It was an intuitive realization. I thought, ‘it’s time for me to move on.’ The theater needs new leadership. Even theater with a flexible and adaptive vision can get stale. I think long-tenured boomers like myself almost have a moral obligation to move aside and let a new young person start. It’s healthy for the organization.”
Her agents in New York returned her to the “active file.” There was a need to separate from Passage in order to take other opportunities, such as a part in the upcoming movie, “Monster,” from a novel by Walter Dean Myers, and she is teaching an adult acting class at Passage.
She will do a solo show at Luna, “Once In, Never Out,” inspired by her mother, a code breaker in England during World War II. Her mother, she explains, could not talk about her work. “When she died I decided I would tell her story but I had to learn her story. I had to invent some material, and then I found her diary holding personal reflection, but not much about her work; she was too good a Brit for that. I realized what I thought were imaginative creations were correct.”
Ballinger’s intuition was also at work when Domingues applied. “My gut said, ‘This is the one.’”
Domingues accepted the Passage job on June 30, resigned the next day from the Wilma Theater, rented a house in Mill Hill, and moved August 29 with husband, dog, and cat. She started work September 5 and by September 14 participated in a full board retreat.
“Trial by fire,” she says. “But it’s incredibly exciting and I can’t wait to jump in.”
She found that relocation to Trenton would be essential for working in community devised theater. On the practical side, her husband can easily commute to Northeast Philadelphia, where he is a social worker for JEVS Human Services. “It’s important to be in the community for the mission of the theater, to reflect the community,” she says. “The theater is paying attention to the community and is geared toward making a difference in Trenton.”
Don’t count out a musical. Domingues’ directing wish list includes traditional musicals like “She Loves Me” (“You cannot ignore that show. Look at the way it’s constructed”) and Sondheim’s “Company.” In connecting with audiences, she said, “there is room in the human experience for joy.”
She led the creation of a musical in graduate school — “Over the Horizon,” developed by students with information gathered from interviews with Iraq War veterans. “Music is another tool to tell your story,” she says. Her taste in theater is eclectic. She loves classics, and her favorite playwright is Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Adly Guirgis.
Continuing Passage’s educational program for Trenton youth is important to Domingues. She has an interest in educational resource guides. Her mother was a fourth grade teacher, her stepfather, a current professor at the University of Delaware. “If there is one thing I can do it is write a great lesson plan,” she proclaims.
Growing up in Altoona, Pennsylvania, she says her first memory of theater was a class field trip to see “Babes in Toyland.” “I was hooked.” She was active in high school theater and theater at Bloomsburg University, where she received a bachelor’s degree.
She is already feeling at home in Passage’s Front Street theater and charmed by the lovingly renovated 1873 Gothic revival building.
But her new home will serve an important role. “We hope to grow in the next few years,” predicts Domingues. “Our country needs the arts. The arts are what help us have the conversations we need to have.”
Passage Theater, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. “Paradise,” Thursday, October 5, through Sunday, October 22. “I of the Storm,” March 9 through March 18. “Caged,” May 3 through 20. 609-392-0766 or passagetheatre.org.