It’s late afternoon at the Mitchell and Ann Sieminski Theater and the empty house gleams like a hot little roadster, its 257 lipstick-red seats surrounded by state-of-the-art lighting and sound, poised to rev at the flick of a switch.
This intimate performance space is $10 million worth of “let’s create the best theater we can possibly design.” There is a 20-line fly system over the stage. Full LED lighting, with nearly 30 instruments. Surround sound. Orchestra pit. Rehearsal hall. Dressing rooms. Green room. Prop and scenery storage room. Wardrobe department with washers, dryers and steamers. And that’s just some of the theater’s many amenities.
You would think we were on Broadway. What you would not think is that we’re on the campus of an active older adult community in Somerset County.
The Sieminski Theater Cultural Arts Center is part of the sprawling 72-acre Fellowship Village “life plan community” in the Basking Ridge section of Bernards Township. But this contemporary entertainment complex is not just a high-end perk for Fellowship residents. It is open to the general public. And the folks who push all those fancy buttons behind the curtain very much want you to come and enjoy a show.
“We’re the best kept secret in Basking Ridge,” said Scott Hart, the theater’s manager and director of programming. “I’ve been in theater all of my life and this is truly one of the nicest theaters I have ever worked in. A lot of forethought and planning went into it. It still has that new-theater smell.”
Even though the Sieminski opened in September 2019, it was quickly forced to close in March 2020, after just five productions, because of the pandemic. It stayed dark until last year, when it presented its first abbreviated season to rave reviews but subpar attendance as it struggled to enforce vaccination and mask mandates. This upcoming season, the theater hopes to finally break out and show everyone just how fast its sleek little red roadster can go.
“It’s a great environment,” said Brian Lawrence, president and CEO of FellowshipLIFE, which owns and operates Fellowship Village. “People who retire now have 30-plus years to live. They want an active, vibrant life. This is part of our desire to open up the community and create a socially engaged atmosphere.”
Lawence also wants you to know there’s not a bad seat in the house. And if you enjoy dinner and a show, you can dine at the adjacent Wilson’s Tapas Bar Lounge, which offers indoor and outdoor seating.
“We’re just like any local theater that’s open to the public,” said Lawrence. However, you would be hard-pressed to find a local theater with a construction pedigree like the Sieminski.
“We had our own architects, KDA of Cherry Hill, and the world-renowned theater design company Fisher Dachs Associates, of New York, as well as K2 Audio for acoustics,” said Lawrence, who lives in Millburn.
They also had generous patrons. Operating as a nonprofit organization, the theater was financed through philanthropic fundraising, loans and the FellowshipLIFE company’s own finances. But the biggest contributors were Mitchell and Ann Sieminski, whose names are affixed to the theater’s marquee. “Mrs. Sieminski has bequeathed her assets to us when she passes to reimburse the cost of the theater,” said Lawrence. “It is a sizeable donation.”
Ann Sieminski is a diminutive woman who enjoys reading, doing crossword puzzles and poring over her New York Times each day in her spacious one-bedroom apartment. While she enjoys all types of entertainment, “except hard rock,” Sieminski especially loves opera. When her husband was alive, they often attended the Metropolitan Opera in New York. After she learned Fellowship was building a theater on the campus, she decided it was a worthy project to support full-throttle.
Sieminski, who will turn 100 in January, is sharp, spirited and self-effacing. All she has to say about her generous gift is, “I don’t have any family. And since they’re feeding me three times a day, I figure (Fellowship Village) is my family and they deserve it. Whatever I have is theirs.” Turns out whatever Sieminski has will now be enjoyed by everyone, not just her fellow residents.
“People think that because we’re located on the village property that we get a ton of village residents in our audience,” said Hart, who lives in Lake Hopatcong. “They only make up 25 percent. The rest is from the general public.”
Hart added that, unlike Broadway, the Sieminski also tries to keep ticket prices in check. “We have a sweet spot here. We try for a three-tier range: $35, $45 and $55. With some of the shows, the tiers will jump up to $45, $55 and $65. We have gone as high as $85 and sold out.”
Hart said he books shows that have a wide appeal. “I try to get a nice mix of things,” which include various types of music, plays and what Hart calls “one-offs” — tours, tribute shows and magicians.
But what patrons love best is musicals. “I’d love to get more musicals in here. Unfortunately, they’re big and expensive,” Hart said.
The theater also has in-house companies that perform regularly. “We have a professional Actors’ Equity company, The American Theater Group,” said Hart. “They’ve been around for several years and do all of the Actors’ Equity productions here.
“We also have a local community theater company, Trilogy Repertory, which was very instrumental in helping plan the theater. They do three productions a year on our stage. And we have a very good working relationship with Centenary Stage Company, which is an Equity theater in Hackettstown. Once or twice a year, when a show closes at their theater, they’ll bring it here for a weekend.” Light Opera of New Jersey and the New Jersey Festival Orchestra round out the regulars.
Hart said he has already booked next season through June 2024 and, come summer, he has something special planned for patrons — in-house cabaret.
“One of the cool things about our theater is that we have two sections: a floor area for orchestra seats and a tiered section with stadium seating that takes up about two-thirds of the space,” he said. “All the seats in the tiered section can fold down and retract into the back wall, allowing us to bring in café tables and transform the room into a cabaret.
“It’s amazing when you get all the tables set up with black tablecloths and candles. It completely transforms into an elegant room. So we plan to do a Broadway cabaret series in July and August, where I’ll be calling on a lot of my colleagues in New York to bring their cabaret shows here.”
The new season opens on Sept. 17 with the one-woman show, “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies,” starring Jessica Sherr. Then Trilogy Repertory will stage “A Man of No Importance,” by Terrence McNally, from Sept. 29 to Oct. 7; followed by an Oct. 14 concert by Constantine Maroulis, who recently starred in “Rock & Roll Man,” off-Broadway at New World Stages in Manhattan.
Both Lawrence and Hart talked about how FellowshipLIFE built the Sieminski Theater to “give something back” to the Somerset County community. “Now we just need to get people to realize they don’t have to drive into the city to see great entertainment,” said Lawrence. “They can come visit us and experience this wonderful, beautiful theater.”
If you go, you just might bump into Ann Sieminski, who receives a complimentary ticket for every show. And if you do, just tell her thanks for the ride.
For more on the theater and a list of upcoming events, visit sieminskitheater.org.
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