Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., gets its name from the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers on either side of the peninsula it sits on, and apparently the organization likes to do things in twos: It was the site of a major 2012 revival of Topdog/Underdog, starring actual brothers Brandon and Justin Dirden and directed by Suzan-Lori Parks herself; it has produced two Joe Iconis musicals; and the last two shows of the theatre’s current season feature a famous couple (Romeo and Juliet, in an adaptation by Hansol Jung) and the other, Nilo Cruz’s Two Sisters and a Piano.
Now Two River is doing a double leadership turnover, with artistic director Justin Waldman succeeding John Dias and managing director Nora Deveau-Rosen succeeding Michael Hurst. Waldman started in the job last fall, and Deveau-Rosen earlier this year, and the new pair are poised to announce the theatre’s 30th anniversary season at a gala on May 13. Waldman comes directly from some years as associate artistic director at San Diego’s Old Globe and Deveau-Rosen from work with Pasadena Playhouse and East West Players, but for both it’s a return to their original coast: Waldman is from New Hampshire and previously worked at Williamstown Theatre Festival, while Deveau-Rosen is from Brooklyn and spent many years as managing director of New York City’s new-play powerhouse Clubbed Thumb. I spoke to them recently, just weeks after Deveau-Rosen had settled into her new job.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: You both have extensive résumés on both the East and West coasts. What brings you back now?
JUSTIN WALDMAN: It was a weird moment when I realized I was at the Old Globe longer than I was in Boston and Williamstown.
NORA DEVEAU-ROSEN: That’s why I left. I was like, I’m getting too far away from my East Coast roots—I can’t let the balance get thrown out.
Can you tell me about your impressions of, or relationship with, Two River before you took the job?
NORA: I worked as managing director of Clubbed Thumb starting in 2012, and as you know, their mission is to support emerging playwrights and new voices and new stories. When we reached out to John Dias, there was a great alignment in mission. So we created a summer artistic retreat, for which we would bring emerging or mid-career writers out to Two River for a week-and-a-half during the summer, every summer for three seasons; we would provide playwrights with any sort of support they needed, and Two River was very generous in terms of providing housing and transportation. I just fell in love with the place; the moment that I came onto campus, it felt sort of like a homecoming. So coming back was very full circle.
Looking at Two River’s history, I guess I didn’t realize it wasn’t founded in the first wave of the regional theatre movement but more recently, relatively speaking.
JUSTIN: It’s gonna hit its 30th year next season. It started kind of slow; it began around a kitchen table at Monmouth University, with Robert Rechnitz and his wife, Joan, and some other former professors, and they grew it out of that, from working on the college campus to working in an old movie theatre to building their own space. So it has had a precipitous rise from an idea around a kitchen table to a LORT theatre. And there are still a lot of supporters who have been around from the very beginning, who remember that kitchen table, and that legacy is really important to me. I really love the idea of the apprenticeship of the theatre as an institution, of how you learn from the people who came before, so it’s really exciting to have connections to the initial inception of the vision.
The building you’re in only dates from the mid-2000s, is that right?
NORA: Yes, and in 2019 and 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, we finished this giant capital campaign to double the size of our campus. We had our theatre and admin building, then we built a whole new wing. When people first hear that they think, “Oh, you built a new theatre.” Actually, the new space is really a support center for people, which I think is really inspiring and speaks to the mission and spirit of the theatre. So it’s got brand new, beautiful state-of-the-art rehearsal spaces, artists’ care spaces, staff care spaces. When you walk around the building, you can really see that the DNA of the architecture is built around person care; there’s natural light in all the rooms.
I’ve talked to a number of folks who’ve taken over theatres right before or during the pandemic—a strange time to start a new job in this field. Can you tell me a bit about what it’s like to take these jobs now? There’s a lot of precarity and uncertainty, but do you also see an opportunity to turn a new page?
JUSTIN: At a time of change, everything’s constantly on the move, but we have a moment to define who we want to be coming back from this moment of pause. I think it’s been really important for all theatremakers and practitioners to have a moment to reevaluate and question and prioritize the things that are most important for these arts institutions. Coming from the Globe, a behemoth with 120 people and a much larger ship to steer, it’s really exciting to come here, where we can be more nimble, and also have these amazing facilities, and a lot of great people who have stuck it out through the downtime, who have a real vested interest in this place as an artistic home, not only for themselves but for other artists and the community that surrounds it. It’s a really exciting time to put your flag in the ground for what you believe in.
I noticed that among your credits, Justin, is that you were integral in forming the Social Justice Roadmap for the Old Globe; I know Two River’s website has a page about its commitment to EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion). As you are two white leaders, I just want to ask you about your approach to equity and access.
JUSTIN: The Social Justice Roadmap was the Globe’s response to the We See You, White American Theater document after the murder of George Floyd, and our way of becoming a more anti-racist theatre institution. The thing that was really exciting about it is that it was a way of socializing ideas throughout an entire institution, community, and board. It was not a dictum that came top down; it really was a way to open up space for anybody who had a thought, an opinion, a question, to engage in a way that felt comfortable for them in their own continuum of how they’re engaging in this process. It was important that everyone had buy-in, because at the end of the day, it was what was going to guide that institution over the next 5 to 10 years. It was an extraordinary document; we got it down to 100 commitments in four phases over five years. It’s about 45 pages of an open-source document with notes and comments—a soup-to-nuts view of what the institution was doing well, what it wasn’t doing, and what it needed to do going forward.
Neither of you were at Two River during the same moment of reckoning, but do you have a sense of how the theatre responded, and how it will act going forward?
NORA: We don’t know the nuances of the IDEA [including, diversity, equity, and access] work that was happening here, but the work that Two River was doing, sparked by by the social justice movement in 2020 and the rise of Black Lives Matter, was to form multiple working groups with specific tasks and mandates; that was also staff-driven, not a top-down initiative. Justin and I are coming in and learning what was happening, and really listening to all staff, whether folks are part-time or seasonal or volunteers or full-time staff members—we’re listening to everyone and taking stock of where we are as an organization, what we have done, what we have neglected, understanding why we’ve neglected it, being really transparent about our findings, and then moving on from there.
Tell me a little bit about Red Bank. I know it’s predominantly white, but there’s also a sizable Latinx population.
JUSTIN: It’s a really cute community, and it’s really blossoming. We’re so close to New York—it’s an hour and 20 minutes away on the train, which is a couple 100 yards from our front door here. I can hear it right now! What’s really exciting is that it’s not only Red Bank; Monmouth County is a gigantic county in New Jersey, so there’s Middletown and then to our south is Asbury Park, a really quirky, fun, exciting community. What I’m finding is that a lot of people moved out of the city during the pandemic for quality of life but are still striving to find artistic outlets near home. And there’s a massive healthcare sector here, with a huge hospital. So you have a lot of people who are potential arts patrons. As you said, there’s a massive Latine community in and around Red Bank, and the programming has been representative of that, with Crossing Borders, a Latine new-play festival.
NORA: One of the mandates that Justin and I are charged with in terms of our leadership is bringing in new communities. That’s something that we talk a lot about, something that our staff talks a lot about, something our artists talk a lot about, something our board talks about. This organization is really invested in meaning more to more people. So that means bringing people here, sure. But after the folks who work here and make the art and support the art, our building is incredibly important—it’s a great resource that not a lot of organizations have, so how do we give our resource to other communities that don’t necessarily have access to things that we have? And then at the same time going into communities, which is a new venture for us. We have to meet people where they are, so we’re really examining our programming from that lens and saying, if people aren’t coming here, how should we show up for them where they are?
I know that among the folks who’ve worked there a lot have been Brandon Dirden and Crystal Dickinson. They live out there, don’t they?
JUSTIN: They don’t live right here; I think they live a little bit north—but everything in Jersey is 45 minutes from everything else, I’m learning. But yes, they’re a very important family of artists who are a part of the fabric of this institution. Brandon has been a longtime collaborator here, and one of my first calls was to him to say, “How do I keep you involved in this?” They’re just incredible artists and incredible advocates for what this place can be. When they were doing Wine in the Wilderness here, their son Chase, who is 8, and my son Ben, who is 6, were running around the building; Chase was able to show me where all the stairwells were.
You haven’t announced your next season yet, but can you tease it a bit?
NORA: Justin, before you answer that, I just want to preface this by saying that this is our 30th celebration, so we’re thinking about next season in terms of how we are celebrating our 30th birthday. How do we have fun with it?
JUSTIN: Nora used the word that I’m most excited about: How do we have fun? How do we have joy? You know, we’ve gone through so much stuff that we really want to be able to come into a space and commune with one another with joy. How do we decrease that social isolation by coming together, and increase our empathy by having a great time? What’s really important to me is that we’re going to have a season that is representative and diverse, as all Two River seasons have been, but also, let’s have a good time. Let’s enjoy our time together communing in the dark, and come out of it with a smile on our face.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. email@example.com
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