Since this week the Extension Division is on our Spring Break, we have decided to post not just one, but TWO faculty interviews! Continuing on from our interview with the Rutgers Summer Acting Conservatory Assistant Director, Kayla Votapek, we will be interviewing the Program Director himself, Mason Gross School of the Arts faculty member and the Artistic Director of the nationally-recognized Crossroads Theatre Company, Marshall Jones!
Marshall Jones is the Producing Artistic Director of the 1999 Tony-Award® winning Crossroads Theatre Company, as well as an Associate Professor of Theater Arts at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. Jones has more than twenty-five years of experience in a wide variety of key executive positions at some of New York City’s most reputable institutions, such as the Apollo Theater (General Manager), Madison Square Garden (Company Manager & Producer), the historic Radio City Music Hall (Producer), and Disney on Broadway’s The Lion King. Jones earned a BA in Theater Arts from Rutgers University and an MA in Arts Management from New York University.
TJS: What initially inspired you to go into the arts?
MJ: As a kid growing up in the 1970s, I looked forward to summer vacations when I could stay up late and watch old movies on TV. This was before cable, and the TV stations would go off the air at around 3 a.m. My freshmen year of high school we’d go to see Broadway shows (tickets were about $20), and I enjoyed the live experience in a theater.
TJS: Was there a teacher who made an impact upon your development as an artist? How did they impact your own work as a teacher?
MJ: My high school English teacher, Mrs. Ritchie, took us to plays. But she wasn’t a theater artist. That exposure started to happen when I came to Rutgers as a freshman in 1981. The school was very young then, although we didn’t know it. We had great teachers, such as Hal Scott, who was a great influence (I still teach what he taught me in classes today), and Joe Hart, who started the Shoestring Players here at Rutgers. (We’d rehearse in RH 101, where the Extension Division offices are now). I did Shoestring my sophomore year and I was a member of the first professional company in the spring of 1985. Betty Comtois was the department chair; I was her assistant and I took her playwriting classes. Of course, Bill Esper was around but I didn’t have him; I studied acting with Joe Hart’s wife, Vickie, who now teaches at NYU.
TJS: What is the most rewarding part of teaching for you?
MJ: Watching students’ careers progress. Seeing them perform and work professionally. That’s so rewarding. On Wednesday, I took a class to see Connected, which was not only written by an alum (Lia Romero) and directed by an alum (Michole Biancosino), it also featured an alum – Midori, who was also an RSAC student. Midori did RSAC about ten years ago. She graduated from Mason Gross and is now working professionally. If you watch TV or go online, I’m sure you’ve seen her Liberty Mutual commercial where she talks about her car “Brad.” Just last night I saw a show at the National Black Theater in Harlem which had alums as well. MaameYaa Boafa got her MFA from Rutgers a while ago and she was great in the play. She’s also starring in a very popular web series which is a take-off of Sex in the City called An African City. It’s set in Ghana and MaameYaa plays the Sarah Jessica Parker character. It’s pretty funny but it’s great watching her career trajectory. Those are examples of the most rewarding parts of teaching for me.
TJS: Have you seen a show lately that has completely mesmerized you? Why did it captivate you?
MJ: I’m in a theater several times a week. I don’t get completely mesmerized but most shows have captivating moments. Plus, when I attend shows, I can’t help but view the work from the point of view of a craftsmen. Doesn’t leave a lot of head space for mesmerizing moments. Although I attended a reading in NYC last week. The play was called Merit, which was written by Haitian playwright Lenelle Moises. The lead male character was a 50-something professor. Well, I’m a 50-something professor. This professor was having an affair with a 23-year old grad student, and I have two daughters – one is 25 and the other is 20 (she’s a sophomore here at Rutgers). The play was well-written so I found myself total invested because of the sick professor and his relationship to the students. And then the father comes in the second act, and he’s quite a jerk. So it didn’t leave me warm and fuzzy but I was engrossed in a way that I’ve never experienced before.
TJS: What makes RSAC the nationally-recognized program it is today?
MJ: Because the RSAC faculty are also college professors, and we expect the same level of dedication and commitment from the high school students that we get from our college students. We challenge them unlike they’ve ever been challenged before. We also jam-pack the day, so that there’s no wasted time. Students are immersed in classes and activities. Finally, we see shows, two shows every Sunday to be exact, so students can witness what they’re learning in class and how that manifests on stage. There’s really no other program out there like ours. Students at another program may see one or two shows the whole summer. That’s crazy – we see that many in one day!
TJS: You are also the Artistic Director of the Crossroads Theater Company here in New Brunswick. What is it like to lead one of the nation’s top regional theater companies? Do you have advice for students who wish to start their own theater company?
MJ: I think that by teaching, I’m a better producer/director. And by producing and directing, I’m a better teacher. They feed off each other. One time in the middle of class, I got a call from the Chief of Staff for the First Lady of NJ. I had to take it. Then I can explain to the class that the Governor’s wife is honoring our theater company. Or if a show I’m directing appears Off Broadway, students attend, but I can detail the process. Or if WNET videotapes our production, I can elaborate on that process. Most of my classes attend the shows at Crossroads. I use all kind of examples from working with actors to budget challenges to obtaining rights, negotiating with agents, etc., so when they actually see the show, they have some insight to the back-end of the process. They have a better understanding of the total picture. That’s what it brings.
As for starting a theater company, I don’t usually advise that unless they have a wealthy grandma who can write a check for a million dollars. It’s too competitive. And the typical funding avenues are closing up, such as government funding and corporate dollars. I tell them they can easily start a production company that produces plays, movies, or television. The economics behind managing a physical theater, buying and maintaining equipment, etc., is a huge hurdle. A production company can provide flexibility. You can put it away for a few months or even a few years, and come back to it when needed. A theater needs to have continual shows and an identity. Tremendously hard. Instead, start a production company and produce whatever and whenever you like.
Thanks so much for your time, Marshall!
For more information about the Rutgers Summer Acting Conservatory, as well as more information about auditioning for RSAC, please visit the RSAC website! The next audition and phone interview dates are April 2, May 14, and May 28, 2016, so there is still plenty of time to apply!