The Music Mountain Quest: An Interview with Ginny Brennan

by Ilona Kimberly Nagy

Graduation, 1967

Women on a Quest series: My Women on a Quest series is about the inherent creativity and drive of women who carve out their own paths. My quest is to tell stories about individuals, business models and creative avenues that inspire me–and uphold the women brave enough to live their quests with guts, grit and caring radiance–radiance that lights the way for others.

The Music Mountain Quest: Ginny Brennan led the search for an indoor space to perform–and to continue her decades of theatre-education leadership–with the help of her dedicated board and loyal followers. After running Downtown Performing Arts Center (DPAC) for sixteen years, she found that perfect spot and opened the doors of Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville, NJ in 2017. With theatre professionals who have worked in the arts for over 25 years, she is uniquely positioned to understand what the audiences of the region are looking for in live affordable theatre entertainment.

Graduation, 1967

Love, Community & Ensemble: “Sometimes, I marvel in the back of the theatre for a curtain call after I’ve seen the show 12 times. I will often find myself tearing up from the appreciation of the audience and from the talent that is willing to give their time and energy to us. I want to always make sure that they know how important each and everyone of them are.

I tell all the kids: “Don’t ever let me hear you say I’m just in the ensemble.” I never want to hear those words together. You can’t do many shows without an ensemble.

What Ginny Learned from her Mom:  “My Mom was not afraid to express her opinion and would write letters to the editor, etc so I learned to speak up when necessary and be open.”

“A Theatre that Needs a Place”:“We looked for a theatre for a long time. It became a running joke in my family. We would see a shack somewhere and say: ‘That would make a great theatre!”

 

Ginny performing in her backyard

Ginny in her backyard

 

Ginny’s Story: For most of her childhood, the lights of Broadway glittered a mere-15-minute bus ride across the Hudson River from East Rutherford, NJ where Ginny Brennan was born and raised. Ginny grew up in a tight-knit Italian community where all of her aunts and uncles lived in the same neighborhood.  “It was a lovely childhood. My aunt owned a grocery-store where provolone was hanging and people paid weekly tabs.”

 

 

Ginny and her sisters Karen and Rita

Once they hit their teen years, Ginny and her two younger sisters (Karen and Rita) were allowed to take orders at their family grocery store named “Italianos” where they might smell meatballs cooking from their aunt’s house in back of the store. They especially loved to work the ice-cream and candy counter.

Ginny attributes her sense of humor to her dad. “He was always making us laugh but it was my mom who instilled in me a love for community,” recalled Ginny with a relaxed and wry smile, as we settled into chairs inside the box office at Music Mountain theatre, where stacks of flyers for their most recent musical, an-all-female cast of Jesus Christ Superstar were neatly stacked by the ticket window.

“Theatre was a part of my life growing up. My aunt, Jeanette Scovotti, performed in the King and I with Yul Brynner.  My parents took us to New York a lot to see theatre because it was cheap and you could afford it. My dad sang in a barbershop quartet and I began to take modern dance classes when I was around 14 or 15.”

 

Ginny's house growing up

Recently nominated for the Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education,  Ginny is the Executive Director of Lambertville, NJ-based Music Mountain Theatre. The theatre is sponsored by many local businesses including Shoprite and Anton’s at the Swan,  among many others. Before opening the Downtown Performing Arts Center (DPAC) in 2001, she served as Artistic Director of the Children’s Theatre program for the Bucks County Playhouse as well as the theatre’s General Manager.

 

 

backyard production of Gypsy

You grew up around theatre. What’s one of your earliest memories of performing? 

We would perform musicals all the time in my backyard. I was between 10-13. We performed King and I, Gypsy and My Fair Lady to raise money for The Sister Kenny Fund.  It was so exciting to have all the neighborhood kids come to my house to act on the stage my dad built. My aunt used to stand in the corner with a record player. At the most, we raised $35 but we all loved it. I was also a cheerleader and I loved dance in high school.

Where did you go to college and what did you study there? 

I went to Dean Junior College. I didn’t know what I wanted to do professionally which I now realize is very common as I talk to so many kids. I had worked in the grocery store as well as a department store as a clerk. So I thought I’d try retail. Unfortunately or fortunately, however you want to look at it, it was in the midst of the Vietnam war. I graduated  but we didn’t even have a graduation ceremony because the school shut down due to protests. I can still remember hanging posters and sheets with Bob Dylan lyrics on them. My dad wasn’t very happy about it. We had a lot of interesting discussions but he kept an open mind. I went to Woodstock in between freshman and sophomore year. I will never forget that experience.

What memory stands out the most from Woodstock? I have to ask.

That’s easy. The memory of Jimmy Hendrix walking on stage on the hill at dawn, and we were all covered in mud. No one seemed to care. It was messy. It was crowded, but no one starved. People shared. It was a wonderful experience.

 

 

Woodstock

Woodstock

What does one do after attending Woodstock?

Well, I attempted to get a job in the retail business. It was not pleasant. One day I went to my boss crying because someone had blamed me for something, and he finally said to me: “You are too much of a flower child for the retail business. This is not going to work for you.”

I said: “You’re right.”

So, when I was about twenty or twenty-one, I got a job working with a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed kids. My sister and I both worked there. I had a 3-11 shift so the kids would come home from school, and we would be in charge of homework and showers and dinner.   That probably started my interest in wanting to work with special needs kids. Around that point, I decided to go back to school as a psychology major at Ramapo College.

Did you do any theatre while you were at Ramapo College?

Actually, I did. I put on a dance production because I had to choose between a paper and a live production in order to graduate with honors. I had no interest in doing an in-depth research paper. So I created a performance called Reflections on Women. It was very 70s.

Dance production

Dance production at College – Reflections on Women

You went on to work in the restaurant business for many years. How did that intersect with  your theater interests?

It gave me an ability to multitask. You have to balance so many things in the restaurant industry–and the same is true for theatre. When I first moved to the Lambertville area after college, I got my first job at the Yellow Brick Toad which was exactly the spot where Music Mountain Theatre is right now.  From there, I began working in the restaurant business which led me to owning a restaurant called Chambers in Doylestown, PA with my then husband, which we ran for twenty years.

During that time, we adopted two boys, Jordan and my other son Ty. By the time Jordan was nine, he auditioned for the Newtown Arts Company because his cousin Becky was a performer and he loved watching her.   Jordan soon became involved in Bucks County Playhouse and I eventually became the Children’s Theatre Manager there.

My interest in theatre really began with my my son Jordan, who after many years acting locally went on to study dance at Marymount Manhattan. After he worked on a cruise ship, he started teaching at our studio. When Louis joined us, we started teaching more adults.

What is it like to work so closely with your son, Jordan as well as Louis Palena, who both serve as Artistic Directors for Music Mountain Theatre? 

Jordan and Louis are the creative dynamite duo. I mean they do it all. Our nickname was the DPAC Three Pack and we don’t always see things the same way but we do our very best. I could not have done this without either of them and the board.

What do you see as the need for the arts in our community?  With all of your experience, you’ve seen so many stories…

Over the years, I became more and more involved in the business end of theatre.  I really wanted to create a place where every kid would feel comfortable and where all of the kids could perform.

If someone came in and they thought they were a diva or expected to be treated like a diva, they would soon find out this was not the place to do that. We didn’t want to do competitions; we didn’t want to do recitals. I have heard from many many kids, that they really feel comfortable here. They feel safe here. That’s what I want to accomplish. Theatre can really bring people together.

What are the most important lessons you want to teach the performers at Music Mountain as they grow into themselves?

I always tell my students: “What is acting? It’s reacting.”  I have a very funny story. One of my students who is now out in the world sent me a little text saying he was watching a master class and there was a very famous actor teaching it and the instructor said: You have to remember that acting is reacting and my former student told me he chuckled to himself and thought, ‘Well, Ginny taught me that when I was twelve years old.’   That meant a lot to me.

And another young man who I had not spoken to in several years called me and said, “Well, I just had two really good auditions and I wanted to call and talk to you about them. You were so important to me.”

I want every one who walks through these doors to feel welcome.

How did you land on the current spot we are sitting in today at Music Mountain Theatre?

We had a long search and DPAC itself had several different locations. When we began looking for a theatre, there was a frustrating stretch where either the location was off or we couldn’t afford it. Finally, I saw this little sign: Warehouse for Rent right on 179 here in Lambertville, NJ, I thought, huh, I’ll go and take a look. Nothing was built. It was a hole in the ground with bulldozers around. I went in and asked the man who owned it, Mike Strober, who is very community oriented,  if he would consider renting the whole place if we turned it into a theatre. He said: “Sure.”

We opened in October 2017. Mike and I realized that the building sat on the same grounds as the famous Music Mountain Circus. Most people don’t even know about Music Mountain Circus.  It was a 1200-seat stadium that drew Broadway shows along with big names like Duke Ellington and Earth, Wind and Fire. We just drew on that.  That’s why we are named the Music Mountain Theatre.

You only rehearse for a week before you put on a show. How do you encourage the kids to move so fast?

That timing is typical for summer stock. It’s interesting because a lot of our students who go off to college over the summer find that the schedule doesn’t phase them. They know that they can put on a show in a week.

You speak highly about your Board.

We have an amazing Board of Directors.   It’s a working board in every sense of the word. Having come through the theatre as a performer or the parent of a performer has made it very special. Everyone has their work and the majority of them have come through as parents. For instance, Eric Snyder is a performer who actually started performing because we needed a Dad in Annie. He’s now our Finance guy.

What shows stand out in your memory?  

Well, I’d probably have to say the first show–Phantom Of the Opera. Of course, Jesus Christ Superstar because it was the first production we did that was  unconventional. 

Dance production

Jesus Christ Superstar at Music Mountain Theatre

 

I also love being able to do things like The Producers and 42nd Street and A Chorus Line.

My favorite part is watching the audience. Teenagers all the way through to senior citizens come out smiling. I stand at the piano every night when the show is over purposely, I tease everyone. That’s my mother of the bride position.  Because I want to hear what people are saying. I love to hear them say, “That was the best I’ve ever seen” or “I saw it in New York and this was better.”  Or “I’m coming back with more of my friends.” It’s very encouraging. It’s nice to be able to go back to the actors and say, ‘Listen, the response has been great.’

Aida

Aida is showing through February 17th, 2019

Tell me about your work for children with disabilities and Down Syndrome?

In between the Playhouse and the Studio and the restaurant, I worked for the Bucks County Intermediate Unit  (IU) as a job coach. The IU comes into schools with special education programs. I was a job coach for several years. I worked mostly with intellectually disabled students finding them a job, coaching them through a job, going back and checking on them. I met quite a few young men who followed me to the studio. So I ran an acting class for them. They are still with me. They started during 2001 when I opened. Every wednesday at 4pm we have our class. It’s gotten bigger but they are still with me.

What would you like to see more of in the future at Music Mountain Theatre?

I’d like to do more for special needs students. I’m hoping in the future to develop our current program into more of a performing company where we can reach out to people who don’t necessarily want to come to a class but will come every Saturday.

What would your theme song be for your quest to run a successful theatre and theatre education program?

Obla di, Obla da by the Beatles.  There’s something about the song that makes me happy and everyone knows it. This summer we were working on cleaning all the chairs in the theatre at my house because I had stored them in my garage. It happened to be Labor Day weekend and the radio was playing a Beatles top 100. And I blasted the song and said to the kids, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to dance and sing.”

That and the other song would be Bob Dylan’s song to his children. Forever Young.

How does Obla Di Obla Da and Forever Young relate to your quest?  Well,  my children are very important to me.  It took me a while to have them and I went through the whole adoption process and I adopted my grandchildren as well. Google the lyrics for Forever Young:  “May you grow up to be righteous. May you grow up to be true. May you always know the truth and see the light surrounding you. May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong and may you stay Forever Young.”  And of course, Obla di Obla da!

 

About Music Mountain Theatre:  For over 15 years, the Downtown Performing Arts Center has been thriving under the direction of Ginny Brennan. DPAC has now transitioned into the Theatre School at MMT and has been providing professional training in all areas of performing arts, musical theatre, acting, and dance. As the production company of the Washington Crossing Open Air Theatre for the past 8 years we have offered performance opportunities throughout the summer season. The Theatre School also offers performance opportunities through the year providing students with excellent training and a chance to put what they learn on the stage.

About Ilona Kimberly Nagy:  I am a professional writer who reveres the interview and profile format. I truly believe that everyone has a story to tell and that curiosity combined with research leads to magic doorway interviews that invite readers to relax and discover their connectedness to every imaginable subject. I’ve interviewed Academy-Award-winning film director Pamela Tanner Boll and Pulitzer-Prize winning historian James McPherson along with many other film directors, educators, translators, musicians, scientists, artists, and so many more.  With twenty years experience in the publishing world, I help clients shape and promote their writing, and work with a stable of wonderful clients, all of whom have inspired me with their noble quests.