A Theater Grows in Glen Ridge

The Gas Lamp Players rehearse for their next big production, 'Your'e a Good Man, Charlie Brown',coming in August.

For over 20 years, there has been a community theater in Glen Ridge. But in the past few years, it has grown and flourished in a way few thought was possible. In a town famous for its residents’ passion for sports, an equal passion for theater has taken root, propelling one woman’s dream into a full-time, year-round theater organization in which hundreds of children and adults have found a home.

Jessica Sporn first performed in a Gas Lamp show in 1991, and was involved in some way in almost every show thereafter. “There was no formal organization to speak of then,” says Sporn. “Gas Lamp pulled together a production team each August to gear up for one production each fall.” Over the years, Sporn saw the participation grow, with dozens of children clamoring for spots in the chorus of adult productions. “I dreamed of a program where children could perform in workshops and hone their acting, singing and dancing skills and focus on fundamentals,” she said.

Luckily for Sporn, Jennifer Hutchinson, another Glen Ridge mom, also felt this need. With two daughters passionately interested in the performing arts, Hutchinson joined Sporn to create a year-round program. Amy Baldassare, a choreographer and dancer, and piano teacher and actress Stephanie Herr, helped Sporn and Hutchinson supplement the annual fall show with 2 school-break workshops each year, and evening classes where children learn performance fundamentals.

Two summers ago, the four produced Gas Lamp’s first student-only musical, the Wizard of Oz. “We hoped for a cast of 20 – 30 kids, but were thrilled to have 56!” says Sporn. The following summer, the cast grew to over 70 with Seussical Jr. This summer, the enrollment again topped 70 with You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.

The mention of Gas Lamp Players provokes effusive praise from parents. Meg Kennedy, whose son Will was one of the recipients of the Gas Lamp Players High School Senior awards in 2008, and whose son James plays “Charlie” in Charlie Brown, explains: “As a parent who has been involved in many athletic, theatrical and community events, Gas Lamp shines above all. The children gain courage and confidence. They learn about responsibility and team-work. The competition is for each other and not against each other. The whole program is a beautiful thing and I cannot say enough positive things about it. I am just grateful that Gas Lamp exists and has graced my community!”

Sentiments like these abound. Parents especially remark on the opportunity for kids from the different elementary schools to mix and bond prior to meeting in third grade at the Ridgewood Avenue School, and the opportunity to share an experience with a broad age range. “All of the kids seem to really have a connection that you don't see in other activities,” states Eric Mangol, father of twin girls entering 2nd grade. “Having put on shows together they seem to really like and respect each other. I'm especially impressed by how sweet and caring the older kids are towards the younger members of the cast.”

In January, with the economy crashing, Gas Lamp Players sponsored the annual Glen Ridge Gala and raised over $30,000. Gas Lamp has used these funds to lower tuition costs, offer financial aid, and install a state-of-the-art sound system in the Ridgewood Avenue School auditorium. Gas Lamp is hoping that the community will come check out the new system when the cast of 71 Gas Lamp kids performs in “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.” Show dates are Thursday, August 6 at 7 PM, and Friday, August 7 at 2PM. Tickets will be on sale at the box office 2 hours before each performance, or are available online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/71104. More information about Gas Lamp Players is available at www.gaslampplayers.org.