The Eagle Theatre Brings Year-Round Professional Theatre to South Jersey
I’ll take “New Jersey Surprises” for $500, Alex. It lives in a century-old building, but started out in a tent.
It’s the only one of its kind in southern New Jersey.
It’s located in a place often referred to as “The Blueberry Capital of the World.”
Oh, oh, I know! “What is the Eagle Theatre?”
Cue the applause and ringing bells.
But, seriously, I was surprised by what I learned in a recent conversation with Ed Corsi, the Co-Artistic Director of Hammonton’s The Eagle Theatre.
According to the Hammonton Historical Society site, The Eagle Theatre was opened in 1912 by Samuel M. Litke, Jr. in an existing building. When that turned out to be too warm a venue for the South Jersey summer weather, Litke erected a huge tent. The tent was replaced in 1914 by the theater’s current building on Vine Street.
Back in the day, The Eagle Theatre was a silent movie house and playhouse. It was sold in 1944 and converted to a church, then sold again and used mainly for storage. In 2006, a member of the town’s arts and cultural committee discovered that the building had historical significance, and put together a campaign – and a group of passionate volunteers – to restore it.
“They knew it would be a theater again,” Corsi said.
At that time, Corsi was running his own theatre company, Stage Left Productions. Some folks from The Eagle saw one of the company’s productions – “Rent” – and asked him if he would be interested in bringing it to the theatre.
“We rented space from them for two shows with my company,” Corsi said. And a partnership evolved. Corsi met his business partner, Ted Wioncek III, and the two were hired by The Eagle Theatre to serve as Co-Artistic Directors.
From that point, The Eagle Theatre really took off – soared, even!
“I’ve been doing theatre my entire life,” Corsi said, “and I have never seen anything grow as quickly as this.”
Several things about The Eagle Theatre make it stand out.
It is the South Jersey’s only year-round professional Actors’ Equity Theatre. “Actors’ Equity Association is a symbol that stands for ‘dedication of craft’,” Corsi said. “We are honored to further our relationship with this remarkable mainstay. It’s just another way to show our patrons that we are dedicated to presenting the highest quality of professional theatre possible.”
The renovations in 2006 included the installation of state-of-the-art systems for lighting and sound. –And, there’s a wine lounge.
“We are the only theater in New Jersey with an on-site wine lounge,” Corsi said proudly.
The variety of the productions is another thing that sets The Eagle Theatre apart.
“Ted (Wioncek) and I choose the season and each direct two shows,” Corsi said. “We try to figure out what makes sense for us – for the facility and the patrons.”
“Next to Normal” – the current production that runs through March 29 – is Corsi’s baby. I asked him if this was a somewhat chancy choice.
“I did go out on a limb a little with this,” Corsi said, “but I was really attracted to the subject matter and the music.”
The story is full of important themes, including mental health, family struggles, loss and grief, psychiatry, and what really happens in the suburbs. And the score, with music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, deliver this serious message without slipping into sermonizing.
“It is intense, but personal, too,” Corsi said. “People see themselves, and their families, in the story. They can relate.
“We chose a young, energetic team, and we have this terrific lighting and sound system,” Corsi said, “I just thought it was our kind of show.”
Hammonton, like many towns in southern New Jersey, is going through a metamorphosis.
“When you walk down the main street in Hammonton today, it’s a very different place than it was even two years ago,” Corsi said. “Stockton College has a satellite campus here. There are several restaurants. There is a Bed and Breakfast opening.”
There is also a branch of the Noyes Museum in Hammonton that offers artist spaces, as well as classes and workshops. And, on Third Thursdays, the whole town gets into the action, with open studios, a variety of special events, and deals and discounts at local businesses.
The Eagle Theatre is clearly part of this renaissance.
“Our patron base has doubled in the last year, and the average age is 40-45 years old,” Corsi said. “They come from all over the tri-state area.”
Traditional and familiar theatre fare does well at the Eagle, but edgier offerings also attract. This season is a perfect example.
After “Next to Normal,” the Eagle Theatre will present the gritty drama, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” followed by “I Left My Heart: A Tribute to the Music of Tony Bennett.” After that is “The Civil War”–described as a “theatrical concert”–and then Stephen Sondheim’s engaging “Into the Woods.”
“We know that our patrons enjoy the musicals,” Corsi said, “but they also come to see the plays. They are smart,” he added. “They want to be challenged.”
“Next to Normal,” starring Broadway alum Krissy Fraelich and national recording artist Brian Bortnick, runs March 7-9, 13-16, 20-23 and 26-29. Visit TheEagleTheatre.com for tickets and more information.