The Hopewell Theater is throwing a party. And who could blame them? The longtime community arts fixture on South Greenwood Avenue in Hopewell Borough is set to stage its second reopening over the last few years with the return of live performances. But as with so many stories, the journey to get to this point is part of a much larger conversation, one that makes the sheer joy of reaching the destination that much sweeter.
Rewind for a moment to 2015. New theater owners Jon Mcconaughey, Liza Moorehouse, and Mitchel Skolnick immediately recognized that the popular performance venue was in need of – we’ll call it “lots of love”. Enter Sara Scully, brought over from the thriving ACME Screening Room, Lambertville’s art-house cinema, to serve as executive director and help oversee a new chapter for the site with an overdue makeover.
After the investors’ initial renovations, the new team was essentially “working with a blank slate” in terms of the building’s underpinning and its physical appearance, Scully said. “We could make it what we wanted, and that meant the opportunity to breathe new life into it,” she said.
Two years of more extensive renovations, including the complete gutting of the interior, yielded a new roof, replaced HVAC system, completely redone electrical wiring, plus a state-of-the-art lighting and sound system. But those upgrades only chronicle part of the story, as this transformation extends far beyond the traditional brick-and-mortar repairs.
“The goal wasn’t just to entertain,” Scully said. “The vision was to provide people with a place where they could meet up with friends, support the local community, get inspired by an eclectic blend of art, talent, and a wide range of offerings.”
The Hopewell Theater has almost defined the notion of eclecticism over its 140 years of existence, serving alternately as a meetinghouse, a traditional movie theater, a Gallup polling facility, and, for 30-plus years, as the respected and much-loved Off Broadstreet Theater. The venue is no stranger to adaptation and reinvention.
Part of that reinvention, according to Scully, centers on the necessary inclusion of the public at large in that vision. “Ultimately, we see Hopewell Theater as an opportunity for people to see themselves there, in whatever capacity they choose, in the audience or on the stage, starting a conversation,” she said.
To that end, rather than focusing solely on physical renovations, Scully, Skolnick, and team constructed a comprehensive plan informed by building a brand through time. “Every decision we made and continue to make – staffing, design, the physical space, programming, messaging – all of it gets put through that same filter, to make sure we reflect the Hopewell Theater brand: a warm, welcoming place to meet friends and get inspired,” she said.
In September of 2017, after all the renovations and changes, the Hopewell Theater kicked off a new era for the popular community arts facility, beginning that long-sought-after conversation of which Scully passionately speaks.
Writer Aaron Sorkin once said all drama is built on the concept of intention and obstacle. And real life is no exception. The intention for the Hopewell Theater team was to revive the theater and turn it into a flourishing arts hub. The team succeeded. For two years, the curtain went up, the music played, and the walls echoed with familiar sounds – the thunder of applause, the roar of laughter, the buzz of conversation – and then – obstacle. The now all too familiar 2020 plot twist: COVID-19.
The doors closed. The lights went dark. The pause button was pushed. Whichever cliché you prefer, inexorably, the conversation the Hopewell Theater team so fervently believed in starting seemed to end just as it was beginning to gain momentum. And, as we all know, what first seemed to be a three-week shutdown turned into month after painful month for everyone, not just the arts community. So in order to re-open, in order to get back on its feet, in order to entertain the thought of live performances once again, the Hopewell Theater team, much like the transformation of the building they operate out of, would have to pivot once again. Which means, happily, that the story doesn’t end there.
A big part of the venue’s ability to return to live performances hinged on the receipt of federal and state grants. The Hopewell Theater worked to establish the New Jersey Independent Venue Association and successfully lobbied for the passage of legislation to financially assist venues just like the theater across the state. To date, $17.5 million in state relief funds has been targeted for for-profit New Jersey venues, with $7.5 million coming from the federal CARES Act and $10 million directly from the more recent New Jersey Community Stage Relief Grant Program, with additional federal monies also available through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant as a result of the Save Our Stages Act. That all adds up to a potentially significant amount of help.
“This entire experience taught the arts community a valuable lesson of solidarity,” Scully said. “It served as a reminder for us all to get out of our silos and pull together. Because, at the end of the day, we’re all in it together.” It is a theme that ties in nicely with Hopewell Theater’s overall aims.
The theater now stands as the physical embodiment of the Hopewell Theater team’s hard work and dreams. Even before entering the building – now boasting an expanded 180-seat layout, complete with an exquisitely new balcony highlighted by customized and hand-crafted hardwood tables by Hopewell’s own Baxter Construction – longtime patrons who haven’t set foot inside in years will almost certainly be mesmerized by the lobby alone, a pleasingly dramatic upgrade from the almost non-existent entryway that predates it. A prep kitchen serves as a worthy addition to the theater’s event snack and dessert concessions, a short-term workaround until their more spacious sit-down restaurant opens around the corner at the site of the former Brothers Moon Restaurant. Once opened, Scully envisions another immersive, eclectic blend of experiences for patrons with unplugged music sets, poetry readings, meet-and-greets, dining adventures, and live streams from the theater.
In the meantime, in terms of the theater itself, that eclectic blend Scully speaks of will feature dance theater, films, tribute and cover bands, comedy shows, and a monthly “Your Stage at Any Stage” 90-minute open mic night, held on the third Thursday of the month – yet another opportunity for members of the community to see themselves there.
Which brings us up-to-date and back to the present in this story’s timeline. Less than a week out from zero hour, the theater poised on the precipice of yet another opening night. Rock singer and songwriter Danielia Cotton, a Hopewell native, will kick the reopening off Sept. 10 in a case of calendar symmetry, nearly four years to the day of the Hopewell Theater’s original re-opening. Festivities will include a pre-show party at which, no doubt, glasses will be hoisted, speeches could be made, and tears might even be shed.
But you can forgive Scully and team for not celebrating just yet, and for having that foreboding sense of déjà vu all over again, as New Jersey’s coronavirus numbers remain on the rise due to the Delta variant.
For their part, the Hopewell Theater planners move forward with cautious optimism – only booking three months out. Masks must be worn by all patrons and staff while inside the building. The theater has also installed UV air scrubbers to clean the air and will be regularly sanitizing before and after shows. It’s a familiar one-day-at-a-time attitude within the arts industry, but one that beckons for a happy ending.
Even a cursory examination of social media over the last 18 months accurately illustrates how much people miss being at a show, seeing a movie in a packed theater, or just laughing together. “Social media was absolutely a love letter to live performances,” Scully said. “I think we’re all ready – audiences, performers, everyone at arts and culture venues – to get back to sharing those live experiences together.”
And that’s a conversation certainly worth having.
The Hopewell Theater box office is open Monday through Friday, 9 a..m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at 5 South Greenwood Avenue in Hopewell Borough, or you can purchase tickets by phone at (609) 466-1964. Tickets can also be bought online at hopewelltheater.com. Visit https://hopewelltheater.com/faqs for more information about ticket purchases, seating, parking, safety policies, membership, upcoming shows, and more.