Q&A with our Education & Community Engagement Manager Erik Stratton
Posted on 06/04/2019
One of the things that we love at The State is the opportunity to introduce newcomers to theater. Whether it's younger children through our Saturday morning Milk & Cookies performances, school aged kids with our various Performances for Schools, or adults through our poetry residence; it's always fulfilling to watch someone engage with live entertainment. All of these programs (and more!) are curated through our Education & Commmunity Engagement department, which is only two people! We sat down with Erik Stratton to learn a little bit more about the department and what he loves about working in theater.
Lets start at the beginning—how did you initially become interested in theater and the arts?
I originally became interested in the arts by playing Dungeons and Dragons with my dad. I have four brothers, and there were always neighborhood kids around my house growing up, so in the summers my father would run all sorts of board games for us. I was really into acting out the voices and playing the characters in these games—if there's anyone out there that owned a copy of Hasbro's Heroquest, that one was my jam. Then in 6th grade we read Macbeth out loud in a drama class, I was totally hooked from that point on and wanted to become an actor.
So what did you study in college? Did you know that you were specifically interested in working in the arts at the time?
I went to Rutgers University right down the street, studying Theater and English. I spent most of my undergraduate years (and summers, and breaks, and when I definitely should've been in class) in the student run Cabaret Theatre on Suydam Street, right on the edge of campus. I auditioned for a role in David Rabe's Streamers my first year, and after the run ended, I just kept coming back until someone gave me an admin job at the theater. One day I was filling in as an usher when the Box Office Manager didn't show up. Somebody just said "Erik's trustworthy. Give him the money and tickets to sell," and the rest is a lot of sleepless nights as I quickly accumulated more and more jobs in the building. On the plus side, I realized acting wasn't where I wanted to be, and working behind the scenes was much more my style. I also met my wonderful wife that way, she was the head of the theater and I was her #2 by the time we graduated.
So how did your career path bring you here to State Theatre New Jersey?
In college I took on two internships at Paper Mill Playhouse in Company Management and Education, then after graduating I spent a year working for an educational theater company that was partnering with Bergen PAC, and then at a bank branch within a grocery store. Spoiler alert, producing theater was much more fun that trying to sell car loans in the vegetable aisle! I had always loved the State Theatre, I'd been to it in grade school for a field trip, and then seen a few productions in college, so when a position opened up in a place I'd dreamed of working at that was almost in my backyard, I immediately jumped. I've now been with theater for four years, but really I track things in terms of how many Family Day events that I've been involved with.
Education & Community Engagement is a fairly broad term—can you elaborate on the projects you work on?
My job can pretty much be boiled down to getting kids, students, and adults into the theater or to bring the arts to them. I work with the local school district to bring students in for their first exposure to a live theater event, I coordinate poetry workshops for senior centers and libraries so that adults can reconnect with writing and personal expression through the arts, and I help coordinate Family Day, which is a huge extravaganza we throw each year aimed at providing free family programming, with art workshops, free musical performances, and a variety of other free activities around one paid main stage event. There's plenty of other free and subsidized programs we run that keep me busy and working with folks aged 0-100+.
Do you have a favorite aspect of the the Education & Community Engagement programs that you get to work on?
My favorite aspect of the programs that I work with would be the excitement on the faces of folks who are either experiencing the joy of live performance for the first time, or who have forgotten about the magic of the experience until the lights fade and the curtain rises. Seriously, you'd think that Beyoncé had stepped on stage when an audience of 1,800 1st grade students see The Very Hungry Caterpillar come on stage for the first time. It's pretty cool, and a little deafening.
What is an Education & Community Engagement Program that people may not know about but definitely should?
So many people have no idea what our Milk & Cookies program is. They just sort of get confused by the name. It's a great series for kids aged 0-10 that is aimed to be their first experience with the arts! We have local bands, storytellers, and dance groups come in to perform two one-hour performances on a Saturday morning, and afterwards everyone gets a cookie or two and milk donated by our local community partners at the La Bonbonniere Bake Shoppe and Cream-O-Land Dairy. A lot of parents bring their kids in for just a portion of the shows, as attention spans can be a little short for the youngest audience members. With six sets of performances each year, we see quite a few kids growing up as they keep coming back for more.
Which performance are you most looking forward to next season?
I'm a sucker for trying to figure out how everything happens on stage. That and bad or cheesy acting. I'm a huge Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan, but that's not something you can show for schools! If you do come to that show in October, PLEASE don't judge me when I wear their tee-shirt and laugh like an obnoxious fanboy at all the jokes and ask for my fan club card to be signed after the show. I was literally a Kickstarter backer (#47470, I know, I know, it's pretty bad) to get their newest season on Netflix. But speaking about our Performances for Schools, we have The Play That Goes Wrong coming up in the spring. It's a Broadway show about a bunch of local community theater actors badly putting on a murder mystery play, and you can't get more cheesy than actors acting like they aren't good actors. Plus with all the farcical elements and the fake amateurism of the story and set, there's plenty for me to dissect and wonder about as the play, well, goes wrong.