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Staten Island's First Professional Theatre

Date: Jul 12, 2013

When you think about theatre in New York City, Manhattan is obviously a borough that comes to mind, and those in the know might mention companies in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. But what about Staten Island? Does it have a place in the conversation?

"There's a bit of an inferiority complex," says Tamara Jenkins, executive artistic director of Harbor Lights Theater Company, Staten Island's only professional Equity theatre. "Staten Island is sometimes referred to as the 'forgotten borough' or the 'step child of New York City,'" she says. "Part of our mission at Harbor Lights Theater is to put Staten Island on the map as a cultural destination."

Jenkins and her husband Jay Montgomery, who is the associate artistic director, moved to the borough in 1999. Both are accomplished actors, but after having a baby they yearned to spend more time together at home as a family. "Our neighborhood, St. George, is full of artists, actors, musicians and architects," Jenkins says. And though she notes there's a vibrant community theatre scene where she lives, "we wanted to give Staten Island its first professional theatre company."

Harbor Lights, which was founded in 2010 by Jenkins, Montgomery, and associate producer Beth Gittleman, operates out of Snug Harbor, an 83-acre public park that boasts two performance spaces, a 146-seat theatre, and a 680-seat historic music hall. "At the time the theatres were severely underutilized," Jenkins recalls. "And yet Staten Island has one of the most rapidly changing demographics in the state of New York. There are lots of young families who want accessible cultural attractions." And if those families don't have to take the Staten Island ferry or cross the Verrazano to see a show, then so much the better.

In addition to serving Staten Island's population, Harbor Lights is committed to "illuminating the human experience." Typically, that means putting on a combination of four plays and musicals per year. Through July 28, the company is presenting Oliver!, directed by Broadway veteran Ray Roderick (The Music Man, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). "We've reworked the story a bit and streamlined some of the clunky transitions," Jenkins says. "Our show is very cinematic."

The cast of 44 features Broadway vets like Nick Corley (Mary Poppins, the recent revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood), plus 20 actors from Staten Island. "Doing a big show is a great opportunity for children who have gone through our education programs to work with Broadway actors and directors and be in a show with high production values," Jenkins says.

"Founding a theatre company in your 40s is different," she adds. "You have a lot of resources and you know a lot of people." But experience can't stop the elements. In the company's first year, there was a fire and Harbor Lights was without a home for six months. Hurricane Sandy delivered another serious blow. The King and I was scheduled for a three-week run in the fall and ended up only having two weeks of performances. "We lost a third of our revenue," says Jenkins, adding that generous support from foundations helped make up the loss in ticket sales. "Despite the storm, we still managed to sell 2,700 tickets. We're hoping with Oliver! to recapture some of that momentum."

Eliza Bent is a journalist, playwright, and performer living in New York City

Photo from Harbor Lights Theater's production of Oliver! courtesy of BITTENBYAZEBR