‘Stage Door’ at Montclair State: A bold attempt to build community through dance

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Members of the Montclair community dancing in “Stage Door” at the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University.

Opening inconspicuously onto an alley, the typical stage door guards mysteries. Only the elect may pass through and peer behind the theater’s veils of illusion. Postmodern choreographers Larry Keigwin and Nicole Wolcott have little use for such conventions, however. Flinging wide the backstage entrance, they invited all of Montclair to perform with them in a “reality” show called “Stage Door,” where the theater’s secrets are revealed. This effervescent romp (with a mission) received its premiere, on May 11, as part of the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University. (There also was a performance on May 12.)

An assortment of props lies in readiness on stage — clothes racks packed with multiple costume changes, standing microphones, wigs and folding chairs laid carefully on the floor — and when we first meet Keigwin and Wolcott, they are making a last-minute inspection. The show’s two stars are in a state of nervous excitement on opening night, fortifying themselves with swigs of tequila and bantering informally. They have recruited 38 performers from the local community, both retired professionals and amateurs, and one of these actors now enters prematurely, and begins to sing. Wolcott cuts her off — not without soothing compliments — and escorts her back offstage.


Larry Keigwin and Nicole Wolcott in “Stage Door.”

This false start doesn’t matter, however, because even after “Stage Door” begins officially, interruptions are rife. Hurried costume changes and attempts to bedazzle the audience with hard-sell performances alternate with pauses for soundchecks, bathroom breaks, and moments when Keigwin and Wolcott collapse exhausted. Performing a ticklish duet set to a song from “Funny Girl,” the stars punctuate their dancing with breathless complaints. With its insider’s perspective, “Stage Door” often resembles a dress rehearsal.

The local performers introduce themselves, each receiving considerably less than the 15 minutes of fame once promised to all of us. Like the monologues in “A Chorus Line,” their curated remarks have a confessional air. One harried member of the gig economy tells us she filed 27 W-2 forms last year. A middle-aged woman confides that after all this time, she still doesn’t know who she is. Other members of this community are more certain of their identities — they think they are fairies and seahorses. We hear wistful tales of childhood dreams and disillusionment, and the stars milk our sympathy with their own heart-on-sleeve monologues.

Removing her wig and smoothing her sweat-soaked hair, Wolcott matter-of-factly complains about her sagging breasts, and describes her anguish as an aging dancer who struggles to compete with new arrivals and finds herself second-guessing her own performances. “I feel like I’m being waterboarded by my own ego,” she says.

In another confession, Keigwin bares his history of traumatic setbacks. These include the long-ago audition at which a director sniped that he was “too gay” to perform in “Cats” and, more recently, a critical review that left a welt.

“There’s no business like show business,” however. The glamor of the theater remains irresistible and, as the song says, “Still, you wouldn’t change it for a sack of gold.” So the show goes on, buoyed by a friendly playlist of pop and Broadway melodies.

A choreographic highlight is the duet, strong and tender, that Keigwin and Wolcott perform to that classic tearjerker, “Ne me quitte pas.” She leans into him, and he manipulates her head. They cling to each other, struggling and taking it to the floor before she retreats treacherously and leaves him. The ensemble appears bustling and confused, as individuals seek their places or try to shove their way to the front, but then a crisp formation emerges, proving that the chaos was illusory. Graciously, the crowd makes way for soloists, who may be lyrical moderns or dodgy breakdancers. A series of fashion parades leads to a tinsel-bedecked finale with everyone dressed in shades of pink (think: ham) and striking, Instagram-ready poses. Despite the program’s earlier notes of pathos, this ending feels wonderfully uplifting.


Performers in “Stage Door.”

It would be easy to dismiss “Stage Door” as merely a charming sequel to summer stock. Yet this community-building exercise represented a serious attempt to resuscitate our culture. Americans have a tendency to scoff at any activity in which money-making is not the primary goal. Yet the ritual of live theater has been part of our social fabric since ancient times. And recapturing our imaginative freedom and the sense of community that live theater provides seems essential to our well-being.

Choreographer Pina Bausch had something like this in mind, when she set her piece “Kontakthof” on groups of senior citizens and teenagers, in 2000 and 2008. Unfortunately, as society has become more atomized, and as people succumb to fear, theater attendance has declined. COVID lockdowns attacked civilization at its core by shuttering our theaters and keeping us apart.

“Stage Door” has its roots in a 2017 piece called “Places Please,” but its more immediate predecessor was the pandemic video “Juilliard Bolero,” which in retrospect looks like a digital Theresienstadt for artists imprisoned in their own homes. With their focus on community ongoing, Keigwin and Wolcott plan to recruit more volunteers. We should wish them success, for a world without live theater would be truly desolate. Let’s go on with the show!

For more on “Stage Door,” visit keigwinandcompany.com/our-work. For more on Peak Performances, visit peakperfs.org.


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