By Emily Weikl
It’s 1860. The Civil War is about to begin. A local volunteer militia named the Jersey Blues conducts a drill at the Drill Hall in Leonia, New Jersey.
It’s 1862. The 22nd Infantry Regiment, Company E ships out from its headquarters to Fredericksburg, Virginia.
It’s 1898. Company E assembles again at the Drill Hall after news of the Spanish American War.
It’s 2017. The Drill Hall, formerly filled with soldiers, is now filled with actors and audiences. Since 1993, The Players Guild of Leonia calls the Civil War Drill Hall Theater home. Applause greets the end of a production instead of the noise of cannon fire.
The Guild and the Drill Hall Theater are both historic. Founded in 1919, the Guild is one of the oldest theater groups in New Jersey. The Drill Hall is the last of its kind in the nation. When The Guild was formed in the early 20th century, the Drill Hall was used as a carpentry shop.
At its inception, The Guild did not have a home. As njtheater.com reports, that was not unusual for the time.
“Way back when, the founding members met, rehearsed, and performed wherever they ‘found’ space, such as living rooms, basements and storefronts,” the website states.
In the modern era, the Guild has staged productions of plays such as “Pippin,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Into the Woods.” The Guild has also arranged benefit performances for local organizations and performed a rock opera of Hamlet in 2002. The Guild also has a tradition of performing original one-act plays since 2003, according to PlayBilder.
Both the Guild and the Theater have historic traditions. An instrumental part of continuing those traditions is Guild Board Member Mark Watson. Watson’s family has been involved in theater for decades. A notable example being Watson’s mother Christine directing “The Boy Friend” in 1961. Like his mother, he now is involved in the Guild as well.
“There are generations of old Leonian families, mayors, people, and their kids that continue to support the Guild,” he said.
Watson is often in charge of publicity in regards to the plays. In the age of social media advertising, he has another method of getting the word out. “I’m old school,” he said. “So I like to meet people.”
Watson also coaches aspiring actors at the Drill Hall Theater, and while doing so he has felt the impact of being a coach. “The value in life is in the teachers and the mentors and the people that help you and your ability to bond with them,” he said, “is what makes your soul richer and wiser.”
In passing, the Drill Hall Theater can be a bit unassuming. Step inside the theater, though, and its history becomes clearer. The wide-paneled original flooring of the Drill Hall is still in place at its entrance. Pictures of past productions grace its walls. A collage of its burning and reconstruction hangs where actors rest before being called to the stage.
The company that now calls the Drill Hall Theater home, and the hall itself, has seen many trials and tribulations. Soldiers once rehearsed drills with a captain looking on. In its place are performers young and old rehearsing lines with a director looking on.
If walls could talk, those of The Drill Hall Theater would have many colorful and detailed stories to tell. An understudy fulfilling a role? Perhaps. Soldiers praying that they’ll make it out of battle alive? Probably. A mad dash to stage after getting into costume and going over lines just one more time? More than likely.
Watson doesn’t measure Guild’s longevity at the Drill Hall Theater in amount of tickets that have been sold or in applause at the end of a performance. Instead, he considers the ties people forge while practicing for a production.
“The reason why we lasted for years, the reason why we continue to do well is because our focus is really on relationships, supporting each other, having fun,” he said.
Watson considers the Drill Hall Theater’s history part of its charm and staying power. With the looming lights of Broadway in the distance, the theater that was once a Drill Hall holds its own.
“Once you go down the road of trying to be like the other theaters, you are like other theaters,” he said. “And when you’re the oldest and the first, and you have a story to tell, and you’re in a historic building, you keep doing what you’re doing.”
The Civil War Drill Hall Theater is located at 130 Grand Avenue in Leonia. Performances of the musical “Hair” begin May 5 and performance dates for The 14th Annual Playwrights Showcase are from June 9 to the 11 and June 16 to 17.
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