Jersey City Theater Center, Inc. (JCTC) – a 501c3 not-for-profit organization was founded in 2006 by Olga Levina, a theater/dance professional and Ben LoPiccolo, an award-winning real estate developer. From inception, JCTC’s mission is to address and explore important and socially relevant topics through the arts.
But when JCTC was ready to present its first production, finding suitable theater space in Jersey City proved to be an easier-said-than-done proposition. In 2007, JCTC – with the help of Jorge Cacheiro, acclaimed theater director and educator – produced Land O’ Fire– but ironically, in spite of intensive venue research, the lack of adequate theater space in Jersey City forced JCTC to book a NYC theater for this well-received performance. Renting theaters on the other side of the Hudson seemed contrary to JCTC’s mission, so later that year, JCTC presented in Jersey City an original theatre/arts multimedia piece, The Whispers & Shouts of a Growing City then later, Suburbia by Eric Bogosian, but both were produced in raw retail spaces, essentially temporary pop-up stations within construction projects.
In order to fully realize JCTC’s mission, it was apparent that first a more permanent and professional facility was necessary. Ben and Olga – and the JCTC Board of Trustees – placed programming on hiatus as they initiated a search for a professional live-event venue where progressive theater & arts programming could be presented on an ongoing basis. In 2007, Ben had found a venue JCTC’s mission required: White Eagle Hall – a long fallow, historic public assembly facility. But, at the time, it was the height of the real estate market, and the asking price was too high to purchase and restore the venue back into a theater. As tempting as it was to gut and turn White Eagle Hall into condos, Ben did not want to be the one to demolish the old theater for profit, so the property went under contract to another developer.
The search for theater space continued. Unexpectedly, the Great Recession of 2008 fell upon the real estate market, disrupting development deals and financing throughout the area. In 2010, Ben received a call offering White Eagle Hall for sale once again, but this time for just half the price! The numbers became workable to realize the vision for a restored theater and by 2012, Olga and Ben decided to purchase and renovate the nearly condemned theater to give home to the JCTC mission.
As the restoration began on the project, JCTC conducted extensive interviews with community leaders, politicians, artists and representatives of regional arts organizations and realized that for a larger space to succeed, a smaller performance space that met the immediate needs of the community was needed. While White Eagle Hall was undergoing the major rehabilitation, directly adjacent, the second floor of Monaco Lock became obtainable. The 5,000-square-foot warehouse was quickly converted to a 1,500-square-foot, flexible-performance space and Black Box Theater, Art Gallery and 10 private art studios. Merseles Studios satisfied the need for a more-intimate, community theater to augment future White Eagle Hall programming while also substantively incorporating visual arts into JCTC’s mission, vision and programming.
As the comprehensive White Eagle Hall restoration – which included installing state-of-the-art sound and lighting technology as well as the latest in audience amenities – progressed, JCTC resumed programming at its new Merseles Studios in 2014 with Personal & Universal, a showcase of original theatre, music, dance, and visual-arts.
JCTC also launched its children’s division, JCTC-KIDS, with Puppetworks, an award-winning puppetry theater company committed to preserving the tradition and art of the Marionette. Puppetworks presents shows every Sunday – as well as special group shows for schools and other organizations – in a specially constructed Puppet Theater at Merseles Studios.
In 2015, JCTC was able to present complete seasons – which run from September to June – and developed its thematic series concept. JCTC board and staff select a topic global in scope and relevant to community, then present a range of voices from multiple art genres – visual arts, theater, dance, readings, dance and other performances—exploring the series themes. Topics have included Justice, Happiness, Origins, Vanity, Borderless, Disruption and Fear.
White Eagle Hall’s official ribbon cutting was held May 5th, 2017, a attended by politicians, community leaders, artists as well as hundreds from throughout New Jersey eager to see the rebirth of this renowned building. JCTC now presents dance and theater at White Eagle Hall, incorporating larger scale productions into its thematic series and overall programming.
When JCTC started, Jersey City once lacked any suitable theater spaces. Today, JCTC has created two adjacent professional theatrical venues, giving wider exposure to local and regional artists and performers while also bringing to regional audiences artists of national and even international stature. JCTC can now remain committed to its mission of bringing in not just a range of artists and art forms, but inspiring conversations about the important topics of our times through innovative and progressive performing and visual arts that embrace the diversity of Jersey City, bringing its community closer together and enhancing its quality of life.