Maureen Heffernan sits quietly at the table set up in front of the Passage Theater stage on which a quartet of actors are work through a scene from the new play she’s directing, “Fixed.”
Heffernan — armed with a cup of pencils, a box of tissues, and a bottle of water — may seem as comfortable as a pilot who has logged numerous hours on a familiar route, but she is also likewise alert to the script open before her, the actors stopping to ask question about a line or movement, and the playwright sitting beside her. That’s former Passage Theater assistant artistic director David White, and he gets up and starts pacing.
While “Fixed” is not White’s first play, it carries some elements that can cause more anxiety than usual. The play deals with a theme he feels strongly about: mental illness. And it is under more than just a stage spotlight. It was commissioned by the NJPAC Stage Exchange, a program of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. This is its first full production.
“I want to ask something about business,” says Heffernan, stopping the rehearsal and leading the actors and playwright into a discussion about stage action.
As she does, she draws on her experience of directing more than 90 productions. And while Heffernan recently retired as the executive director of Young Audiences of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, she is connected to the development of theater in central New Jersey— on stage and off.
“I was at George Street in the 1980s and ‘90s,” she says after rehearsals at Passage’s home in the Mill Hill Playhouse, an old church-turned-theater on the edge of the Mill Hill neighborhood in downtown Trenton, where Heffernan lives. “After I got out of grad school I started as a children’s theater actor, then (George Street Playhouse founder and director Eric Krebs) found out I did stage managing, and I moved to production stage manager, then stared the education department. Eric was a great mentor. He gave me the opportunity to direct. I directed a number of New Jersey premieres, ‘A Little Night Music,’ a stylized version of ‘Cabaret,’ ‘’Night Mother’ and (others). I also got to do some acting,” she says of her critically praised works.
Heffernan says when she left she started directing for different theaters — John Houseman Theater and Ensemble Studio Theater in New York City, Pittsburgh Public Theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company in Ohio, Pennsylvania Stage Company in Allentown, and the Florida Repertory Theater.
While Heffernan had the opportunity to work at a lot of different theaters, she says, “At the same time I was drawn to arts education. I was involved with the (New Jersey State Council of the Arts’) Summer Arts Institute, which became the Institute for Arts and Humanities Education, and I became its director. While I was there, I was involved with interdisciplinary learning, which is a passion for me.”
She says the reason she gravitated toward arts administration was to help give herself and other artists a voice. “(Artists) often complain that we don’t have control over our destiny. I thought I should step forward and work at the administration level.”
Her connection to “Fixed” began last year when Passage Theater Artistic Director June Ballinger invited her to a staged reading at the NJPAC in Newark. Heffernan says she shared her response with White, who in turn suggested she direct its first production.
“I’ve known David for years, loved his plays, and we wanted to work together. And I’m happy to work at a theater two blocks from my home.”
Yet it was her connection to the subject that sealed the deal.
White’s play is a comedy that deals with three Trenton High graduates who vow to always be there for one another whenever they get sick. It then evolves into “a story about how ignored, untreated, mental illness can wend its way around a group of individuals and derail their lives. It’s also about how those same individuals can survive and thrive through treatment and their love for one another,” White says in a statement.
Heffernan says her work as an arts administrator and educator has involved her with people who have similar struggles and “in my own circle of family and friends, I have seen the struggle of people living with mental illness. There’s so much stigma associated with it, it is such a hidden disease. My mother suffered from depression, and it took her a long time to find something to help her.”
Heffernan, 66, came to New Jersey via Chicago. “I’m South Side Irish,” she says. “My father was a human relations employee with the Chicago Police Department and other city departments. My mother was a homemaker and worked at Sears for 20 years.”
Her life in the theater started at age 12. “I spent a lot of time in the school office for talking, and a teacher said, ‘You think you’re funny. Would you like to be in a play?’”
That led to an interest and a scholarship to a college in East Chicago. “It was a small Catholic school where everyone (in the theater) did everything,” she says.
It was also where she met Jack Bettenbender, an actor, director, and playwright who served as first dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, from its founding in 1976 until his death in 1988. He was looking for students.
“He recruited me, and I came here (to New Jersey) and got a full ride to Mason Gross. I am very lucky. I went to school on a scholarship.” Her classmates were Avery Brooks, Crossroad Theater founders Lee Richardson and Ricardo Khan, and playwright William Mastrosimone.
Heffernan says she was originally focused on acting, but she eventually realized that directing would help her find more jobs. Additionally, “I loved plotting the works,” she says.
Assessing her approach, Heffernan says, “I would like to think I’m a good collaborator. I think I can listen to voices. And I love to make pictures on stage. I love aesthetic beauty. And I don’t forget that we call them ‘plays’ for a reason. While I’m serious and attentive, if we lose the sense of joy, we lose the humanity in it.”
She says her move to Trenton came 20 years ago when she and her partner of 35 years, Betsy Stewart, whom she met at George Street, lived in Highland Park and found that market was becoming too expensive. At the advice of arts advocate and former Lawrence High School principal Don Profitt, she and Stewart became Mill Hill homeowners. “I have been here 20 years,” she says. “I love Trenton and am committed to it.” She and Stewart married in 2013.
Looking back at both her early days at GSP and as a founding member of Crossroads Theater, Heffernan says, “It’s exciting see a new generation of young art leaders. It’s invigorating.”
Then thinking about the work in front of her, she says, “One of the exciting things about doing a new play is you add a variable. If it is Shakespeare or Arthur Miller, if you‘re having a problem, it is the director or the designer. But with a new play, it is the first time it’s brought to life, so it is like a tightrope walk.”
It is a walk she hopes leads to unfixed ideas. “It is important that when people leave the play that they have questions as much as they have answers and have serious conversations on the way home.”
Fixed, Passage Theater, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Opens Thursday, May 4, 7:30 p.m., and continues through Sunday, May 21, Friday and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays, May 13 and 20, at 3 p.m., and Sundays, 3 p.m. $33 and $38. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.