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All About Speranza Theater Company in Jersey City

by Sarah Griesbach
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Speranza Theatre director Heather Wahl moved her women-centered theater company to Jersey City from NYC in 2013. Since then, this mighty group of playwrights, performers, and theater production mavericks has brought original plays to school auditoriums, parks, and historic and art centers all across Hudson County, while teaching scores of children how to take their stories to the stage. Read on to learn all about the ever-growing repertoire of Speranza Theatre Company.


Opportunity in Jersey City

Making it in theater in New York may be a goal for a great many theater aspirants. It certainly was for Speranza Theatre director Heather Wahl. She and Speranza Theatre were successful in their early years in the City of Dreams but the successes of that period hardly compare to what came when Heather made the bold decision to move her company across the Hudson. Jersey City and Hudson County have supported Speranza consistently through grants and opportunities. What was one more innovative theater company in New York, is a sparkling boon for our region. 

Theater By and About Women

Who tells the story is always an important part of the storytelling. The expression of a story is enriched by the author’s perspective, bringing voices to characters that emerge differently depending upon who is doing the telling. The arm of Speranza Theatre Company’s productions aimed toward adult audiences creates evocative shows by and about women. Organizing around that mission came about organically, but the fact of it came as a surprise to Heather when Spiranza treasurer and board member Diana Basmajian pointed it out to her. 

a cast member of Speranza theater company

A Speranza cast member performs in A Chain Around the World. Image courtesy of Speranza. 

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Speranza’s adult productions are typically contemporary originals, however, they have occasionally performed published plays. The company put on Eve Ensler’s impactful Vagina Monologues several times. It presented Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart, a true drama of six women, five nurses, and a country western singer, who were sent to Vietnam by an unscrupulous agent to entertain the troops.   The company produced Women Rising, an original work centered around interviews with survivors of domestic violence. The work came from a partnership with Jersey City-based group WomenRising, which supports survivors of domestic violence. 

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Zap Fitness

Not every Speranza play is intensely serious.  Janey Miller’s World Tour was an adult comedy fairytale for adults. It was performed in the previous Art House Productions space in Journal Square. Speranza has used the storied Barrow Mansion as a venue for staging performances for smaller audiences. This summer, their original History Alive series will include scenes of Hudson County women’s stories performed in a monologue in local libraries.

The company is now homed in the Apple Tree House, sharing space with the Museum of Jersey City History, and hosts a selective, annual course led by playwright Pandora Scooter. The rigorous application process brings impressive talent together to participate in a Women’s Playwrighting Circle whose members perform quarterly readings throughout the session. It’s a program that extends from summer to summer and can claim several successful professionals in its list of graduates.



Theater For and Sometimes By Kids

Speranza’s educational program is a true asset to our area schools. The company maintains two full cast groups ready to travel to school auditoriums and gyms all over Hudson County. A Chain Around the World depicts the story of groundbreaking journalist Nelly Bly. Walk by the Way of the Moon is a moving telling of the Underground Railroad. Votes for Women is a play about Alice Paul and the ratification of the 16th Amendment. Unveiling Liberty follows the daughter in a fictional family when, in 1889, she discovers that her gender makes her unwelcome at the ceremony celebrating the Statue.

Sarah G Photo credit Sparenza theatre

Each of the original Speranza history plays presented in Hudson County schools is accompanied by lesson plans and opportunities to talk about the content with the performers. Some have been filmed so that schools can stream them. A collaboration with the Alice Paul Institute in Morristown resulted in a beautifully filmed version of Votes for Women. Speranza reaches around a thousand students each year through its free Jersey City, Kearny, Hoboken, and Bayonne public schools program.

Sarah G Photo credit Sparenza theatre

For children who catch the theater bug, Speranza holds seasonal camps where kids focus on either playwriting, acting, or directing, and sometimes sign up for all three. Campers learn a wild array of theater skills including character development, plot, dialogue, stagecraft, and improvisation, and then see their own words come to life in a 10-minute play. 

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All the World’s a Stage

Speranza is in a period of growth. Regional sponsors have stepped up to support the work the group does  for students and their families as well as for adults who wish to bring their own stories to receptive New Jersey audiences. The company’s staff has grown, as has the number of actors taking the show to the road. On March 16th, the company will brought its history fair performances titled In Her Footsteps to Jersey City’s City Hall where participants will be “transported through time as actors bring to life the stories of significant women who have shaped our world.” The chances of catching a Speranza performance in a city park, library, or other Hudson County location are only increasing as the company thrives.

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