The curtain has come down on the Bickford Theatre’s Main Stage, a series of locally produced comedies and dramas dating to 1995.
“The board elected not to continue the Main Stage part of our program. But the theater will continue here,” said Cleveland Johnson, who was hired last September as director of the Morris Museum, the Morris Township nonprofit that operates the Bickford.
Eric Hafen, artistic director of the Main Stage for 17 years, is gone, too.
“Eric was an outstanding director of presentations produced in-house. Since these productions have been discontinued, the position of Artistic Director, regrettably, is lost,” museum Chairperson Gerri Horn said via email.
Main Stage was discontinued after “five years of evaluation by the staff and the Board of Trustees,” said Horn, who promised “exciting things” ahead for the theater.
The Bickford’s upcoming season will be “bigger and better than ever, and include elements of everything we’ve done in the past,” said Johnson.
Hafen, quietly let go last month, said he wishes the Museum and the Bickford well, and is proud of the entertainment he presented there for nearly two decades.
His challenge was finding plays with small casts he could afford to present for two- or three-week runs in the 312-seat Bickford. The Main Stage series featured three- to five productions per season.
The final season consisted of Bakersfield Mist, a critically acclaimed new play; Accomplice, a whodunnit that scored on Broadway; and A Dog Story, a musical comedy that did well Off-Broadway.
Named Morris County’s Outstanding Professional in the Arts in 2005 by Morris Arts, Hafen especially enjoyed introducing audiences to quirky, compelling stories that never got the recognition he felt they deserved.
“I was always interested in the ones sitting on the shelf. Why didn’t they work? My initial role was to give second life to plays. How come Frank Gilroy’s play didn’t work?”
He mounted a revival of Gilroy’s The Only Game in Town, a script that languished in Hollywood (Elizabeth Taylor’s demands proved too daunting, according to Hafen) before getting a brief theatrical spin.
Hafen also established a connection with Tony-winning playwright Joe DiPietro, presenting four of the Rutgers grad’s plays, including I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and Over the River and Through the Woods.
The Main Stage premiered Don Nigro’s Ravenscroft, a mystery/comedy set in 1905 that raised contemporary questions about the nature of truth. It also gave New Jersey its first look at John Cariani’s Almost Maine.
Well known actors drawn to the Main Stage included William Schallert, whose voluminous credits included playing Patty Duke’s father on her TV show, and Kim Zimmer of The Guiding Light.
Actor Tait Ruppert has appeared on Broadway and in more than a dozen films and TV programs. Acting for Hafen in Accomplice was “the most fun I’ve ever had in a play,” said the Morris Township resident.
“The play is funny but Eric made it come alive. And he did it so effortlessly. His direction was like throwing us all a party. His easy laugh was the most comforting sound to hear.”
Losing the Main Stage is a “crushing blow,” Ruppert added. “We have lost a community. We have lost a safe and wonderful space for artists to come and do their work. To do their work for the joy of people coming to see it.”
Hafen also has been “loyal, loving and generous” to the broader theater community, said Barbara Krajkowski, artistic director of the Women’s Theater Company and the Parsippany Playhouse.
Unfortunately, she said, theaters everywhere are struggling with rising costs of royalties, union wages and other expenses, and cuts in government- and corporate support.
“When we started our companies there were so many generous funding sources, and today it has all but dried up,” Krajkowski said. “It is an uphill battle to keep the arts alive.”
Hafen, who studied for the priesthood before embarking on a theatrical career with Six Flags and New York’s Jekyll & Hyde Club, said most Main Stage productions cost between $20,000 and $35,000, not counting the Bickford’s operational expenses.
He won’t miss that side of showbiz. But the Bickford’s patrons, yes, he will miss them.
“One thing I always liked about our subscribers: They trusted what I chose, and would come to see it,” said the Middlesex County resident. Usually, they stayed for the whole show.
But Hafen remembered a Sunday matinee of The Little Dog Laughed, an edgy drama about a closeted gay actor. After a brief nude scene, “about 20 seniors got up and left!” he said.
Going forward, Hafen said, the Bickford plans to present traveling theatrical productions and possibly simulcast shows from elsewhere, while continuing its popular jazz concerts.