As a generational shift in regional theater leadership continues, Nell Bang-Jensen, nationally recognized as a rising star among theater professionals, has taken the helm as the new artistic director of Norristown’s Theatre Horizon.
“It’s a huge responsibility and a huge gift,” said Bang-Jensen, 30.
At Theatre Horizon, Bang-Jensen replaces cofounder and artistic director Erin Reilly, who will move on to a new fund-raising role.
“The American regional theater movement began in the 1980s and was based on the idea that everywhere in American could use a theater as a community center — not just New York,” Bang-Jensen said. “Now, because of the way these cycles go, a lot of the founders of those theaters are stepping down and making way for a new generation. It’s happening all over the country.”
In noteworthy changings-of-the-guard locally, Bristol Riverside Theatre founding director Susan Atkinson and artistic director Keith Baker announced Monday that they will be step down following this season, after 33 years. At McCarter Theatre in Princeton, the pioneering Emily Mann is now presenting her last season, her 30th as artistic director and resident playwright.
The shift, Bang-Jensen said, is opening a lot of fresh conversation about “how theater is serving our communities. How can we make theater more diverse, more inclusive, and more equitable? It might mean mixing up traditional theater models to prioritize the public good. I’m very interested in experimenting with different models and with what theater can do in the 21st century.”
“Nell Bang-Jensen is a bold theater artist with exceptional leadership skills,” Reilly said. “I’m thrilled to take on a new role at the company and am fully in support of Nell’s vision for community-building through theater, an ethos perfectly aligned with Theatre Horizon’s values.”
Reilly and Matthew Decker, both longtime Philadelphia theater professionals, founded Horizon in 2005.
Decker will direct Horizon’s concert performance of Into the Woods featuring many returning cast members from the theater’s 2015 production of Stephen Sondheim’s convoluted fairy tale. A celebration of Horizon’s 15-year history, the three performances run Sept. 27 through Sept. 29, with a preshow gala on Saturday.
A rising star, nationally
Nationally, American Theatre magazine has named Bang-Jensen as one of six “theatre workers” to know. She was one of eight people accepted into the Theatre Communication Group’s Leadership program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for individuals who represent the future of American theater. She is also the recipient of this year’s Next Stage Director’s Fellowship from the Drama League, a directors’ organization in New York.
In Philadelphia, Bang-Jensen has produced and directed shows at FringeArts, Philadelphia Theatre Company, the Wilma Theater, Pig Iron Theatre Company, and the Painted Bride. She’s a graduate of Swarthmore College and senior lecturer at the University of the Arts.
In the spring, she’s slated to direct Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of The Wolves. In May, FringeArts will stage Bang-Jensen’s Boy Project, drawn from months of story circles and outreach to boys, age 12 to 15, asking them to imagine becoming men.
Last year for Pig Iron she cocreated The Caregivers with home health aides and hospice workers. “We gave them a master class in acting and they gave us a master class in caregiving,” she said. As Bang-Jensen moves into her role shaping future seasons for Theatre Horizon, she hopes to create something similar in Norristown, drawing on the life of the community.
She said she’ll start by listening. “I really want to offer everyone access to storytelling,” she said. “What are the stories we are telling and why? How can we do so with joy and humor? How we can empower regular citizens to have opportunities for art? How can we reimagine what already exists and offer other ways of being together?
“I’m an idealist,” she said. “I want to try to make theater for the America I want to be part of."
Bang-Jensen takes over a thriving entity with a million dollars in revenues, a strong educational component, and a commitment to collaboration.
Educationally, Horizon runs an autism drama program. “One mother brings her son here every Saturday from Virginia so he can participate in the program,” Bang-Jensen said. Horizon also provides theater programming at a preschool and at Stewart Middle School in Norristown.
Collaboration shows up in Theatre Horizon’s fall lineup on Oct. 11, when Power Street Theatre Company’s production of MinorityLand moves from Norris Square in Philadelphia to Norristown in Montgomery County.
Written by Dominican-American playwright and performer Erlina Ortiz, Power Street’s resident playwright, MinorityLand describes what happens when a local university decides to expand into the barrio. The play opens Sept. 25 in Power Street’s home performing space at West Kensington Ministry, a Presbyterian church on Norris Square, running through Oct. 5 before heading to Norristown.
Linking both groups are partnerships with Norristown-based ACLAMO, Accion Comunal Latinoamericana de Montgomery County, the Latin American Community Action of Montgomery County.
For Power Street, Bang-Jensen said, the collaboration means a chance to work on a larger stage. For Horizon, it’s an opportunity to build connections with Norristown’s LatinX community.
Another collaboration, way less serious, is Theatre Horizon’s production of The Hound of Baskervilles, a comic parody of one of Sir Conan Doyle’s most celebrated Sherlock Holmes novels. First stop? Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington, where it runs through Sept. 29. By sharing production costs, the two theaters, which don’t compete for the same ticket-buyers, can stretch limited resources.
Besides, “people need extra laughter in their days,” Bang-Jensen said. “It felt like a good time to do a funny mystery.”