Modern Day George Street Playhouse

The George Street Playhouse in 2014 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Photo by Aubrey Thomas.

Eric Krebs, a former Rutgers professor, founded the George Street Playhouse in 1974. Krebs served GSP as its Producing Director for 14 years. As a member of the League of Resident Theaters (LORT) along with 74 other theaters across the country, the GSP is a very well respected theater.
Originally opened in an old Acme supermarket, the GSP relocated in 1986 to its current location at the site of what was once the YMCA. In the beginning, Acme provided a crude setting with folding chairs and a small stage. However, under years of stellar leadership, GSP grew into a “nationally-respected Equity theater with a…2015 budget of $4.8 million.” David Saint, artistic director since 1998, holds the theater to high artistic standards, which results in collaborations with numerous leading theater artists including Chita Rivera, David Hyde Pierce, Tyne Daly, and Marlo Thomas.

Today, New Brunswick is known for its highly respected theater district. At the beginning of the 20th century, Vaudeville, stage shows, concerts, and popular moving pictures could be seen at the Rivoli Theater, the Bijou Theater, the State Theater, and the Empire Theater, and these venues were central gathering places for the community as a whole. The 903 seat Opera House successfully featured live opera until 1951. Although many of these theaters are no longer in business, the State Theatre has been thriving in recent years, featuring live performances and concerts. 

In the 1970s, the theater district experienced a major resurgence in popularity. The George Street Playhouse, along with the Crossroads Theater and the State Theater, brought value to the downtown area of New Brunswick. The Crossroads Theater specifically provided a space to foster and showcase performances about the African American experience. In 1999, it was the first African American theater in the US to receive a Tony Award. 

Before this resurgence, there was nothing to draw outsiders to the city of New Brunswick other than work. Furthermore, outsiders’ perception of the city was that it was unsafe and generally unappealing. With the influx of new, higher paying jobs provided by Johnson & Johnson and the sudden disappearance of factory jobs, a new demographic was attracted to New Brunswick. However, they did not move to the city–there was still a long period of white flight--the depature of white residents--that has not yet been reversed. People were merely attracted to the city for dinner and a show.

How can the theater district appeal to college students and poorer residents with even less disposable income, and still maintain their appeal to wealthier, visiting professionals? Is it even necessary for their business model to appeal to these underrepresented communities? 

Jill Eisner is a consultant for fund development for the New Brunswick Cultural Center. The NBCC’s mission is to “stimulate the cultural development and economic growth of arts and entertainment in New Brunswick through the enhancement, preservation, maintenance and effective administration of existing and future venues that service the primary constituent base of the NBCC and by nurturing viable arts, educational and entertainment organizations that reach the diverse communities of New Brunswick and the region.” One of the communities that the NBCC defines as a primary constituent base is poorer residents in New Brunswick because they have less access to the performing arts. When tickets go unsold, the State Theater, owned by the NBCC, normally gives them away for free.