What is a place where you can view such great variety theatre starring Winnie the Pooh and Piglet as well as Edgar Allen Poe and Hamlet?
The Pax Amicus Castle Theatre, also known fondly as simply The Castle, is where!
Former West Morris Regional High School tenure English teachers Stan Barber and Bob Findlay were eager for a change in their lives, so they founded the not-for-profit Pax Amicus Castle Theatre in 1970. They will be celebrating the theatre’s 50th anniversary in 2020.
Pax Amicus Castle Theatre serves it purpose as an overall arts center with very little limitations. They offer Broadway musicals, great dramas and classic melodramas, contemporary comedies, productions for younger audiences, Shakespeare with the Castle Shakespeare Repertory, an incorporated professional Shakespeare program that began in 1995, and Generation Next, a theatre program for teenage participants.
“You have to know your audience. What will they want to see?” says Barber, Pax Amicus’s Administrative and Artistic Director, “Everyone once in awhile we will challenge our audience and they will step up to the plate and come to the dramas that deal with difficult subject matter.”
In addition, Pax Amicus also holds special events and features guest artists, such as stand up comedy nights. Plenty of people have even held their themed weddings there with Barber as the officiant.
Pax Amicus was originally stationed in an abandoned Presbyterian church in Flanders and their current location in Budd Lake was a former Jewish community center and then Knights of Columbus Hall. In 1977 they purchased the building and transformed it into the Castle it is today.
The growing popularity of the children’s theatre was the driving force behind this move, intending for the Castle to just house children’s productions. They chose the castle design to appeal to the young theater patrons and originally it was going to be just a plywood façade of a castle.
“A friend of mine said, ‘How about we build a real castle?’” says Barber, “We had no idea the expense that was going to be or the amount of time it would take, but we felt that would fit children theatre beautifully.”
The construction for this took two years to complete until they then finally opened in 1979. Present as guest of honor at the ribbon cutting ceremony was Margaret Hamilton, best known as the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz, thanks to her agent who recognized their efforts and offered one of his clients for the occasion. Because of her frail health at the time, accompanying Hamilton was upcoming actor, then in his twenties, Kevin Bacon. Pax Amicus’s opening show was a musical tribute to Jacques Brel.
They used both church and Castle locations simultaneously for a few years. However, they soon realized that the Castle was a much easier to find landmark, so they decided to sell the Presbyterian church in 1983 to work at the Castle full time.
In regards to the children productions, Barber prefers to focus on the positive messages of the shows and is careful to eliminate any possible racist or sexist themes. For example, regarding the Hans Christian Anderson tale of “The Little Mermaid,” he noticed that in the Disney version Ariel, the titular mermaid, gives up everything to be with her prince whereas her prince gives nothing up in return. Considering this idea sexist, for the Castle’s July 2015 production he decided to revamp the fairytale by writing his own music and having the Prince sacrifice his legs through a wizard’s magic to be with Ariel, who already sacrificed her fins, somewhat mirroring O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi.” But it turns out that the Prince was originally a merman himself all along and the take away from this is that people need to be their true selves.
Whenever there are villains in a children’s story, they eventually turn good in some way, whether by magic or natural means. Barber believes that theater is there to entertain.
However, in response to the idea that theater should make people uncomfortable as well, he says, “Theater should provoke thought. It should awaken consciousness. It should remind us that there are people in the world who suffer great pain and that we sitting safe in a dark room being entertained hopefully we take what we learned or thought or felt into our lives.”
One production that Barber really appreciated directing at Pax Amicus was the May 2016 production of rock musical “Next to Normal,” which is about a mother struggling with bipolar disorder and its effects on her suburban family. Barber provides the piece as a great example of provoking thought and something that “crossed the line of being just a musical to something that really addresses what it means to be human.”
“If you see something like ‘Next to Normal,’ maybe you were not conscious of what the loss of a child could mean to somebody,” Barber explains, “Her child died and that would cause great pain in a person. And it’s how do you navigate that pain? Watching someone going through something so awful hopefully makes you sensitive not only to your own pain but to other people and what they endure and survive.”
He then goes on to say something very worth noting. “The theatre is a school of empathy where you learn to care about other peoples’ agony.”
The concept of empathy is clearly explored through Pax Amicus Castle Theatre’s main aims of art and experimentation and friendship and support. In fact, friendship is the meaning behind their very unique name. Inspired by the reminiscent Greek design of the church, they desired to use the Greek or Latin language. Barber and Findlay, a Latin scholar, played around with a few words to reflect the kind and calm atmosphere the Castle emotes.
“Bob had been very involved in music. He went to senior facilities and orphanages. He had a wonderful little group that would entertain,” says Barber, “I was doing the plays at the school. Our friendship was the base of doing this together, and so I started throwing out words like friendship, kindness, teaching, and he would translate them.”
They finally settled on Pax Amicus, which appropriately translates to “peace, friend.”
“That sounded that most musical,” says Barber.
Future shows Pax Amicus Castle Theatre will be producing is “The Pitmen Painters” in January/February, “The Lion King Jr” in July, and “Mamma Mia!” in August.