CAPSTONE: Treasure in the Attic

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By Alexandra Bardinas —

A brown fabric couch sits quietly in the nucleus of the stage. The New England-style ceiling, with vast beams of white wood, contrast heavily with the modern day Broadway style lighting. The crowd is a veritable piñata, all different flavors mixed up and ready for a bang. An utterly forgettable Top 40 cd is playing on what seems like an endless loop. Suddenly and without warning, the lights fade to nothing. The music dies. A car horn, a crash. The blood curdling screech of an ambulance. Your eyes meet the light, and you are left wondering what happened.

The Attic Ensemble has caught you.

On this particular night, The Attic Ensemble presented a production of “Next Fall” (see sidebar) and you truly understand why they are Jersey City’s longest running theater company. A simple set, some clever lighting, and the enthusiasm of a crowd is no match for the sheer brilliance that is the Attic Ensemble.

Shelly, an artist, 35, has come to support her friend. “I really enjoyed it. They took a controversial subject and gave it just enough humor to keep you from crying. Really touching though.” Richard, a writer, 33, “loved how they told the story out of sequence. The last scene when they were together, it’s so remarkable, just like life.” Both Shelly and Richard noted that this was their first and certainly not their last production, and they intend to spread the world.

A theater company is only as strong as its members, and the colorful individuals that make up the Attic Ensemble are treasures to the Jersey City artistic community. These men and women have devoted most of their adult life to enriching the lives of Jersey City Residents and their families. The majority of the Attic Ensemble members have full time jobs, a spouse, and children. Still, the Attic Ensemble is so beloved by its members that they consider it a second, more pleasurable job- a true telling of who they are.

The Attic Does not put food on the table, rather the Attic feeds their souls.

Arthur Delo, the Attic’s art director, is one of the original members of the ensemble and has been with the group for 35 years, the longest out of anyone currently involved. Delo is refined, classically handsome, and dresses like a gentleman. His tall stature, snow white hair, and booming voice contradict his kind, courteous, and easy going personality; he could have easily been a movie star. Delo looks like the patriarch of an American dynasty, so it’s no surprise when he speaks of his classic American upbringing, albeit in Jersey City.

Delo’s was born and bred in Jersey City. As a young man, he joined the U.S. army and was stationed in Kansas. While in Kansas, Delo joined an on post theater group, and was involved in several army theatrical productions. After the army, Delo attended Fordham University in New York City, where he majored in communication arts.

It was then that Delo “got the bug” and his love affair with theater began.

Delo, like most of the Attic Ensemble’s members, is a public employee. He has been a union executive for over 25 years, and says “I enjoy my job in the union, but would rather be a movie star. Sometimes it’s depressing, but overall I enjoy it very much.” When asked about retirement, Delo laughs, “pretty soon, but I have been saying that every year for the last five years, so we’ll see.” Delo chuckles as he describes the origin of the Attic Ensemble. The Attic Ensemble was born out of the dreams of Several Alumni of St. Peter’s College, a Catholic College located in Jersey City. A group of friends that often performed together in school productions felt that their love for theater would rightfully continue after graduation, thus the birth of the Attic Ensemble. The Attic Ensemble receives its name from its origin, which was an actual Attic located in a member’s house. Several years later, life intervened; few were able to find work in pro theater, and most moved to the surrounding suburbs in Northern New Jersey. With this immense change came the need for a new space; something that support not only the members but an ever growing audience.

With much luck, Delo’s father, who was an episcopal priest at St. Stephan’s church in Jersey City, was able to allow the use of the church hall for such productions. With St. Stephan’s as their new foundation, the Attic Ensemble began to plant the seeds of culture in an otherwise stale environment. At St. Stephan’s, the Attic made a significant mark on the history of Tri-State theater and proved that Broadway quality theater does not necessarily have to yield Broadway prices.

Nothing lasts forever, and nothing can stay the same.

Change in this case came as great fortune disguised as a colossal headache for the group. After 20 years of thriving and thrilling the masses, the Attic Ensemble was railroaded with the unfortunate news of the Arch Diocese decision to close St. Stephans. With the looming devastation of the loss of their home came the big question: What’s next? What were the members to do? Some had devoted 20 years of their lives to nurturing and raising the Attic as any proud parent brings up their child, where they to abandoned their baby or stride on without strife?

The answer came from a founding member and resident saint, Juanda Maragni.

A historic space known as the “Barrow Mansion”, located on Wayne Street, had been the envy of local government groups for its beauty, grandiose, and historical significance. With much delight to the Attic Ensemble, previous knowledge of this space did nothing to move the envious members of government to occupy said space, which left the Attic free and clear to lease the Mansion as their new and certainly improved home.

The Attic Ensemble Theater located within the Barrow Mansion is a feast for the senses. The manner in which the theater is set up can visually and aurally demand your attention, with several different options for staging. For one production, the chairs might be set up traditionally on one side with a head on view of the stage, another production might have the chairs set up stadium style with players centered like the yoke of an egg, and of course there’s the ever popular use of the audience as props within the play; that is, the actors will actually interact with the audience, unbeknownst to them. The results are often a belly busting ballyhoo.

Maryann Murphy is the Vice President of the Attic Ensemble, and has been with the group for over 25 years. Murphy was also born and bred in Jersey City, and attended St. Peter’s College, which was the birthplace of the Attic Ensemble. Murphy, like most of the Attic’s members, still calls Jersey City home. She has been an assistant corporate counsel for Jersey City for 24 years.

Murphy, like Delo, is a contradiction within itself. She has a sweet disposition, like that of a favorite aunt, and speaks glowingly of the Attic Ensemble, her fellow members, and Jersey City, yet she holds an elite and sometimes ruthless position within her hometown. Like Delo, however, Murphy hasn’t let her success get to her head.

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Murphy believes the Attic is unique within the theater community, and does not consider the Attic Ensemble “Community Theater”. Because the Attic Ensemble advertises in trades from New York City, Pennsylvania, and the outer boroughs, they literally have talent from all over the Tri State Area auditioning on a regular basis.

Murphy believes the Attic Ensemble’s greatest gift to the theater community is their ability to perform quality productions at an affordable price. They do not have a Broadway budget, and therefore lack the Broadway special effects.

But what they lack in special effects, they make up for in creativity, originality, and most important, talent.

Murphy also prides herself on the fact that the Attic Ensemble is not a vanity company, in essence, they are not putting on productions to stroke the ego of various actors, directors, and producers. Everyone and anyone, literally a person from the street, can come in and audition. Every member has creative input, and no idea is scoffed. If they have the resources, the talent, and the drive, they will make it happen.

The Attic Ensemble is Jersey City’s best kept secret, but this secret is itching to be told. Too many people have put an endless amount of blood, sweat, and tears for the Attic to be synonymous with Jersey City. These are not individuals who are trying to appear on the next episode of Law and Order, rather, they love the craft. The Attic Ensemble has moved from location to location, seen members come and go, and yet, the spirit of the theater continues to persevere.

The Attic Ensemble is the torch carrier for quality theater this side of the Hudson; check them out!