NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J.: Just 37 miles from Times Square in Manhattan is another theatre destination, in New Jersey. Crossroads Theatre Company, which took home the Regional Theatre Tony in 1999, is the resident company at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, now under construction. The new building will open in fall 2019 with two state-of-the-art theatres, 450- and 275-seat spaces that will host productions by Crossroads, George Street Playhouse, American Repertory Ballet, and Rutgers’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. Next door to NBPAC is the State Theatre of New Jersey, an 1,800-seat performing arts venue that presents concerts, musicals, and more. “In addition to being a university town, the downtown New Brunswick neighborhood is home to some of the finest dining establishments in the state,” says Marshall Jones, artistic director of Crossroads.
American Theatre caught up with Jones, who is also a board member of Theatre Communications Group, via email to learn more about producing theatre a stone’s throw away from the Big Apple.
Who founded Crossroads Theatre Company, when, and why?
Ricardo Khan and Lee Richardson. 1978. They were among the first graduates of Rutgers University’s School of the Arts in 1976. They went out to pursue their dreams, and in less than a year decided they wanted to tell their own stories—their way. Neither sang or danced, nor did they have any desire to play pimps. The landscape for Black artists was very different back then. The opportunities to work in major regional theatres were limited. Wait—they were non-existent. To the point, I just read an article in American Theatre where Emily Mann says prior to her staging Betsey Brown in 1991, there had never been work by a person of color onstage there. Crossroads filled an incredible void at that time.
Tell us about yourself and your connection to Crossroads.
I went to Rutgers in the early ’80s, and my professors, Avery Brooks and Hal Scott, worked at Crossroads a lot. So we’d actually have class there during tech. I remember my professors saying that I would be working at Crossroads someday. But in all honesty, I wanted to be in New York City. New Brunswick was not on the radar back then.
I started teaching at Rutgers in 2002. I got the wonderful opportunity to replace one of my other teachers, Eric Krebs, founder of the George Street Playhouse. Teaching is great, but I was getting antsy being on the sidelines. I missed the action: rehearsals, audiences, all that. So in 2007, Crossroads asked me to be their executive director. Then after a couple years, Ricardo wanted to focus more on his directing and writing, so he said, it’s yours. I became the producing artistic director; a title and position that I love. It sums me up perfectly.
What sets your theatre apart from others in your region?
Well, we’re the only professional Black theatre company in the state of New Jersey, and part of just a handful in the region. Crossroads has a reputation for our penchant for artistic excellence. The founders modeled Crossroads after the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) in that all aspects of the production have value—sets, costumes, marketing, audience engagement, etc. Also, I would state that our audience has a tremendous level of pride in our organization—all of our members, no matter their race. Our plays and our interpretations of scripts inspire audiences.
Is there a story behind the theatre’s name?
Yes, Kenny Johnson went to school with the co-founders and was certainly a major part of the theatre’s early development. When the location was scouted, the theatre (an old sewing factory which has since been demolished) was located near the intersection of three major roads—Route 18, Route 27, and Memorial Parkway. The founders liked the idea of an adjoining point where all roads cross. Hence the name. To this day, we still maintain that vision as we strive for intersectionality where all are welcome.
Who is your audience?
I love our audience. They are a very sophisticated audience. They have a sense of ownership with the theatre. They refer to shows at Crossroads in the first person: “Do you remember when we did that show…” That is very reassuring for me, because it affirms that we are connecting to them in a real meaningful way. If your question wants typical demographics, our audience is very diverse—young and old, rich and not so rich, a melting pot, so to speak. Here are the stats:
60 percent Black/African American
25 percent White
10 percent Hispanic
3 percent Asian
2 percent Other
3 percent under 18
12 percent 18 to 30
20 percent 30 to 45
30 percent 45 to 65
35 percent 65 beyond
Tell us about your favorite theatre institution other than your own, and why you admire it.
Oh boy. There’s way too many to mention, but if I have to answer, I admire those artistic leaders that took over storied institutions and built upon the existing legacy. Jeesh, what Oskar Eustis has done at the Public. Amazing! What Kwame Kwei-Armah did in Baltimore at Center Stage. James Bundy at Yale. These guys are my age, but I have so much respect for them and their accomplishments. Keep an eye on the Minnesota area with Joe Haj at the Guthrie and Sarah Bellamy taking over for her dad at Penumbra. Running a theatre is incredibly challenging, so doing that is hard enough, but when you add the element of building upon a legacy and creating your own—that’s worth admiration, as far as I’m concerned. I probably shouldn’t have named names, but that’s the truth. If I’ve forgotten someone (and I certainly have), I apologize in advance.
How do you pick the plays you put on your stage?
Best part of my job! Hands down. There’s no science to it. You read and read. You develop relationships with playwrights and directors, and when it’s time for the show to “hatch” you typically know. The process is very organic. For us, we come up with a unifying theme each year. But get this—we pick the shows first! And then the dots just connect themselves. We realize, Oh all of these plays are women issues, or, all of these plays are about hope. Granted, we do only four shows, so it’s easier than, say, a season of seven or eight plays. We have a board member who’s excellent at finding the common denominators of the plays.
What’s your annual budget, and how many artists do you employ each season?
It fluctuates, particularly now during this transition period, but the basic number hovers around $600,000. That will double in our 2019-20 season, which will be the first year in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Typically when we were doing four shows, we hired about 20 actors a season, and of course all of the supporting artists and craftspeople—directors, designers, technicians, production personnel, etc.
What show are you working on now? Anything else in your season that you’re especially looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to our new facility. After two years of operating Crossroads on the road, it will be good to settle down in our new house. I’m looking forward to sharing venues with our long-time neighbors, the George Street Playhouse. I’m looking forward to the marketing synergies resulting from the newness of the complex. I’m also looking forward to our gala in October 2019, where we will present the inaugural Ossie Davis-Ruby Dee Living Legend Award to a major celebrity. (You’ve undoubtedly heard of him. Stay tuned!)
Strangest or funniest thing you’ve ever seen (or put) on your stage?
Well, my motto is “drama on the stage and on the stage only.” So we maintain a relaxed but professional atmosphere. And sometimes, as the boss, funny stories don’t work their way up to me. We did a student matinee of Sheila’s Day, a wonderful story about domestic workers in South Africa. We somehow oversold the production, so we had to squeeze in a couple extra buses of students. We sat them on the floor down front. One student in particular was experiencing a tummy ache and relieved himself. Yeah, he called Ralph! A teacher swooped down and rushed him to the bathroom, and our ASM wiped it up. Show didn’t stop at all.
What are you doing when you’re not doing theatre?
I’m teaching the next generation of future artists at Rutgers University. Well, that’s theatre, so that probably doesn’t count. Watching the Giants—reflecting on the great memories of Eli Manning (2007 and 2011), but the end is near. Reading my daughter’s plays and movies. That’s still theatre (kinda), but as a dad, it’s absolutely thrilling.
What does theatre—not just your theatre, but the American or world theatre—look like in, say, 20 years?
I’ll be 75. I hope to be able to take my grandchildren to theatre, particularly at Crossroads. I hope to be still directing. Definitely not running a theatre. I would hope that the toxic atmosphere of our current society changes; it’s galvanized in politics, but I think our political climate reflects who we really are. I have great hope for the current generation. They grew up observing a Black man effectively run this country, a man who was clearly passionately in love with his wife. I teach these kids in college today—they have no recollection of 9/11 or even the Bush years. They are astonished by the state of affairs. They’re gonna change things. I get emboldened by the high school students from Parkland, Fla., how they are so informed on the issues. They know a world where they’ve always had knowledge and information at their fingertips. I am looking forward to observing them use this to make the world a better place. When that happens, it’ll affect the work onstage as well. So I can’t wait!