Theater is back in Montclair.

Of course, it never really left. Live performance was tricky during the pandemic, but everyone tried.

There were Zoom performances. Sometimes even interactive Zoom. The Zoom squares were turned into pieces of sets. Theater companies experimented.

There were socially distanced performances, where audience members sat in “bubbles,” circles that were socially distanced from those in other circles. At Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, the circles were drawn in chalk on the grass. 

There were performances in masks. There were performances where the audience was masked and the performers were not, and vice versa.

But for fall 2022, traditional live theater is alive with a passion.

All over Montclair and in surrounding areas, companies are jumping into performances that include the audience, surround the audience and welcome the audience back. 

Theater has always been about being live. And this year, more than ever, that means the audience in person. 

Connecting with the audience on issues

Social issues that affect the community are in the spotlight for several local companies.

Vanguard Theater Company, a professional theater company that opened its Bloomfield Avenue home last year, is partnering with A Taste of Downtown Montclair for its first show, “The Spitfire Grill,” on Oct. 15: come hungry. The show is about a young woman fresh out of prison who wants to make a fresh start — and help save a restaurant. The musical by James Valcq and Fred Alley is based on the 1996 film of the same name. A Taste of Downtown Montclair will spotlight restaurants, particularly those in the Fourth Ward. “We’re very interested in social justice and the community in which we live,” Managing Director Jessica Sporn said. The company will present three more musicals this season: “Passing Strange,” “Cabaret” and “Spring Awakening” and will have community involvement with each. Vanguard is also presenting two youth shows and a full slate of classes for youths and adults.

Studio Players, Montclair’s oldest community theater — 80 years and counting — is also highlighting social issues this season.

Last season Studio had a shortened lineup — just three full productions — and the company looks forward to its full slate of five main shows (not counting collaborations and readings). In 2020, the company instituted a Diversity and Inclusion Committee to build bridges to artists of color in the community, Creative Producer E. Dale Smith-Gallo said. Studio Players is developing partnerships with Soul Steps Dance Company in Newark and   in Montclair, among others, Smith-Gallo said.

A docudrama called “Destigmatized,” coming this fall, is a collection of stories from women responding to the leak of the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. Emily Miller’s company The Red Mic Repertory Company worked with Unidentified Stages and has had two staged readings, one at Studio Playhouse, which raised more than $1,000 for Planned Parenthood. Upcoming performances are planned for Oct. 21-23. Check Studio’s website for dates of upcoming productions. Studio is also partnering with TNT (Teaneck New Theater) to bring a new adaptation of “Frankenstein” to the stage. 

But if you love the traditional, family-friendly shows that Studio does so well, do not worry: “Clue” continues through Oct. 2, and “Miracle on 34th Street” will take place in December. Interested in being in a show? Studio posts its auditions on its website. Auditions for “Miracle” are on Oct. 10 and 12.

Connecting with the audience onstage

You might not want to be a performer, but you will be part of the show at several local companies.

leave no trace theatre, founded in 2021 by Melissa Toomey, is planning an “immersive folk horror adaptation” called “beyond them all as beyond a veil,” inspired by the work of Arthur Machen and American folk horror, just in time for Halloween. The location will be a park in Montclair, on weekend evenings in late October and November, Toomey said. To find out exactly where you have to RSVP — the show itself will be free. The show “will be on a trail and led by a sort of character guide who will take the participants through the experience,” Toomey said.” The company’s mission is to create theater intended for the outdoors, and in a relationship with its environment.” She encourages Montclairians to follow the company on Instagram and Facebook.

Luna Stage is also planning an immersive Montclair experience, though not until this spring: “Underground History,” part one of a five-year initiative, in which Luna is exploring the Underground Railroad and its history in Essex County. “The first year, we’re focusing on Montclair, and working with the Montclair city council,” said Artistic Director Ari Laura Kreith, a Montclairian herself. The  show will take place at two locations in Montclair, and the audience will be able to chart its own path either to see them both on one day or on consecutive days. Luna will also show the plays indoors in its West Orange home, since some people are not comfortable outside. There’s so much history to explore, Kreith said. “Underground History” will take place beginning March 30.

Meanwhile, the company opens its season with the world premiere of an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Richard II” by Zachary Elkind, using just four actors to play all the roles, focusing on, according to a release, the “danger of unchecked power.”

The audience will not be onstage for that one, but they are definitely part of the picture.

Connecting with the audience as creators

Then there are local companies whose mission directs them to connect with the audience as creators of their work.

Luna Stage and Vanguard Theater Company both offer classes at all levels, while also presenting professional productions.

Culture Connection Theater, as the name suggests, exists to make connections. While the company has presented staged readings and productions (full disclosure: they have presented readings of this writer’s short plays), the company’s biggest focus right now is an improvisatory exploration group called Circle of Sparks Playback Project. Now entering its fifth season, Playback Improv combines storytelling — from the performers themselves — and improvisational theater that, according to the company, “honors true life stories and encourages community healing on a broad range of topics, including climate change, racial justice, the pandemic and more.” Participants can expect to use instruments and scarves as they recount stories that other participants will enact. The experience can be enlightening and enthralling. The company holds public performances of the shows during the fall, winter and spring.

St. James Players, based in St. James Episcopal Church, presents one show a year, all with amateur performers. This company is a community theater that started out of St. James Church with a “mission to bring free Shakespeare to Montclair,” board member Jamie Pagliaro said. “We’re a very inclusive community theater group that has people of all ages, all religions and races.” This year’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” was its 10th production; the company was founded in 2020 but was on hiatus during the height of the pandemic. The company began rehearsing in mid-June for this past month’s performances. There may be other staged readings during the year — there have been in the past — but in the meantime interested actors and technicians should check out the company’s Facebook page. Casts and companies, to go with that inclusive ideal, are large.

Apricot Sky, which has its home in the Deron School on Grove Street, often has an evening of one-act plays by New Jersey writers, and this autum is no exception. The one-acts, in an evening titled “The Last Pastrami Sandwich,”  will run Oct. 14-16 and Oct. 21-23, and consist of seven plays by three playwrights, including producer Eric Alter, Jon Beeler and Luisa Vilardi. Several Montclairians are involved as directors and actors, including Helen Exel and Studio Players’ John Fraissinet.

And don’t forget…

Montclair High’s School of Visual and Performing Arts always does a winter drama and a spring musical. At the time of writing, the shows had not yet been announced, but they sell out quickly, so check their webpage and social media to stay posted.

Montclair State University’s Theatre and Dance has an interesting program that includes a version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” set in the round Oct. 13-22, and  a collaboration on the Stephen Schwarz and Roger O. Hirson musical “Pippin” with the John J. Cali School of music in November.

Peak Performances, which performs on the campus of Montclair State University, has several regional and world premieres from all over the world, including the regional premiere of Femmes Du Feu Creations’ “In the Fire,” a concept created and performed by Holly Treddenick, a “solo dance/aerial circus show about Treddenick’s father based on his experience as a firefighter,” according to the Peak Performance website.

Nutley Little Theatre’s six-show season includes “Third” by Wendy Wasserstein in October/November and the hilarious “Hand to God” by Robert Atkins in June. 

A little further afield, in Madison, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has a full season again, two one-acts by noted Black writer Alice Childress, “Florence and Mojo,” in late October, and The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn has programmed a full season of musicals again, including “On Your Feet!” —the story of Gloria Estéfan — in October.

Broadway is back, too.

But you don’t need to travel that far.