Lancaster City is well known for its arts events. First Fridays offer residents and tourists alike the opportunity to explore the many art galleries, museums, jewelry stores, and other shops that line the streets.
The third Friday of every month is Music Friday, during which bands play on Lancaster Square and at various locations around the city, such as Tellus360 and Annex 24.
The City is also home to the Fulton Theatre, the oldest continuously operating theater in the nation, which produces during its seasons a mixture of popular Broadway dramas, comedies, and musicals, the likes of which include “Miss Saigon,” “Singing in the Rain,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” and “Hairspray.”
Such theater does not, however, necessarily cater to all kinds of audiences. That is how Mitch Nugent and his wife, Diana, found their foothold in Lancaster.
Established in 2010, PRiMA Theatre is a professional theater group currently operating out of Millersville University’s downtown building, the Ware Center and the Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum, located near Central Market.
Beginning with the “Defying Gravity” show in January 2010, the company has quickly gained notoriety now that it has grown roots in the city.
Both native New Yorkers, the Nugents fell in love with the area and wanted to create a new aspect of the theater in Lancaster to fill the void left by a deficit of performing arts groups.
“What would fresh theater look like?” Mitch Nugent wondered, and the project grew from there.
According to Nugent, when he and his wife came up with the idea for PRiMA, the visual arts (galleries, museums, and so forth) had significantly expanded since just a few years ago, while the performing arts had not. There were few options for people who wanted to enjoy professional theater.
On top of that, the professional theater that was available did not focus on the modern musicals that Nugent had grown up with, such as “Rent” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He wanted to change that.
Before coming to Lancaster, Nugent worked as a Creative Arts Director at a theater company in upstate New York.
Once he arrived in Pennsylvania, however, he worked on the stage for about five years, which, he says, was a helpful experience so that he knew what he asked of his actors when he was behind the scenes.
Not too long into his new career, he realized that the administrative aspect of theater was more his speed. Enter PRiMA.
Originally, he says, they “weren’t really sure how the market would take it.”
He and his wife were told at the beginning of their endeavor that it would be difficult to break into the community because the area is resistant to change.
Despite being warned that things would be tricky, however, Nugent and his wife forged ahead.
“‘It’s always been done this way.’ Our response was, ‘Why?’” He explained.
Because PRiMA is so inventive, their competition has been somewhat atypical.
As opposed to performing classic musicals, their new approaches to previous works have altered the way competitors behave.
“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you,” said Nugent of his competition in Lancaster.
Other performing arts groups would, as he said, give them metaphorical pats on the head until they began to notice that there was something unique happening with PRiMA.
Overall, however, people are supportive of the group. The Fulton invited them in to do a cabaret in their early years, which Nugent considered a “kind stamp of approval.”
Harvey Owen, the director of the Ware Center, states that “theatergoers in Lancaster perceive them as innovative, original, and very professional. It’s like a local kid has become a big star.”
The process has not been all sunshine-and daisies, however. In addition to some competition, they also began the theater company on the side in Nugent’s apartment, right when the economic recession really hit.
It has been difficult, but the work is worth it overall, and it pays off.
“They have really come into their own in Lancaster City. They are well known, highly regarded, and very popular,” according to Owen.
Some of the toughest work comes from putting on the shows themselves. There is a lengthy process to getting a show produced.
For example, the idea for their most recent show, “The Music of West Side Story,” came to Nugent after hearing a CD of a creative alteration of the music about a year ago.
This made him wonder, what if the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” was a rap number, and if during “I Feel Pretty” Maria was interrupted by another character, who commandeers the song.
The trouble was presenting it to the Board of Directors, who might not be able to see the vision.
Still, Nugent says, “The best shows are the ones that are the biggest pain.”
Each of PRiMA’s shows are only performed for two nights, which means that a lot of work goes into each production, for what seems like no reward to an inexperienced eye.
However, Nugent insists that the shows they work the hardest on and give them the most difficulties are the ones they remember the most.
The reward for these short performances is the “moment of ecstasy,” as he says, when they at last see it all come together on stage.
Those performances which require so much effort are “tipping points” for PRiMA and for the theatergoers who pay to see them.
The theater group will not be the same after the performance, and neither will the people who see it.