Even if you have the money and a truckload of passion, you don’t want to just slap a theater production together, open the box office and hope for the best. It takes months of planning. Maybe years. You want to start out on the right foot, get people interested in your production and get them interested enough to want to come back for more productions.
Ewing resident Judi Parrish and her two partners, Peter Bisgaier and Jennifer Zefutie, hope that’s the case with their theater company, the Pegasus Theatre Project.
Bisgaier says he knows all about doing it the wrong way. Back in the 1990s, while living in New York, he and a friend did a very characteristically mid-20s thing to do: they started a theater company with one show. It was based on the film Reservoir Dogs, and it got plenty of attendees. Naturally, Bisgaier thought it was because he was running a cool new theater company. People showed up for their first production—it made sense they’d come back for the next one.
“They didn’t come back because it wasn’t Reservoir Dogs,” says Bisgaier, a West Windsor resident.
With the Pegasus Theatre Project, which is his second real try at starting and running a lasting theater company, Bisgaier believes that he, Parrish and Zefutie have taken the time to do it right. The company is now gearing up for its second production this spring, a play called Art, and is already the official resident theater company at the West Windsor Arts Center.
For Parrish, the arts center is a short drive from her Ewing home, where, now that she’s retired from the state Department of Transportation, she’s able to bask in the thrilling nonretirement of theater.
“Being able to spend more time doing theater was one of my main reasons for retiring,” Parrish says, adding that she also enjoys spending time with her family (her son and his partner live in Rhode Island), reading and travelling, including multiple trips trips to Disney World.
Parrish, a 14-year resident of the township, says the genesis for the Pegasus Theatre Project sprang from a mutual desire to do “high-quality theater.” She added that she had worked with both Bisgaier and Zefutie in various productions in the past, and that Bisgaier and Zefutie had met while working together in a production.
“It was during that production that Jennifer and Peter started really talking about forming a new company,” Parrish said. “As they discussed it more, they realized that they needed a third person with some different skill sets and asked me to join them in developing the company.”
Parrish says that when Bisgaier and Zefutie asked her to be part of the burgeoning Pegasus Theatre Project, “I jumped at the chance,” she says. While she brings a metric ton of performance experience, Parrish says her biggest contribution is her technical ability.
Part of that was honed through music — a combination of mathematics and art that allows her to problem-solve and puzzle-solve — and her down-in-the-trenches, learn-by-doing education she got working in so many productions as so many types of professional.
Parrish said that their planning for Pegasus began in earnest in July 2015. By the beginning of 2016, they had formalized their plans and were able to incorporate in April 2016. They formalized their relationship with the West Windsor Arts Center at that time, and received IRS nonprofit status in July 2016.
Parrish’s organizational experience over the years working for the state also helped Pegasus through those beginning stages. During her 31-year career at the DOT, Parrish worked for various offices and divisions, including section chief of the Air Quality Planning Unit, managing the department’s responsibilities related to transportation sanctions and air quality conformity lapses.
At the time she retired, she was manager of the Bureau of Records and Services, where she supervised a staff of 26 conducting activities related to Open Public Records Act. DOT records management and retention schedules, DOT policies and procedures, and various service areas within the department.
Bisgaier, Parrish and Zefutie, a Cranbury resident, are not beginners in theater by any stretch. The trio has about 90 years of collective theater experience, acting, producing, directing and technical. Half of that experience belongs to Parrish, who’s spent 45 years working on and in productions to some degree.
During those years, Parrish has worked as a director, musical director, lighting designer, set designer, sound designer, technical director, stage manager and actor.
As a director, Parrish has staged plays, musicals and operas, including The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Diary of Anne Frank, Agnes of God, Master Class, The Laramie Project, The Miracle Worker, Steel Magnolias, Godspell and Faust.
Parrish was also the director of Pegasus’ inaugural production, Proof, which was performed last September.
Parrish’s technical design credits include set designs for Camelot, Jekyll & Hyde, Assassins, Godspell, The Miracle Worker, Fiddler on the Roof, Agnes of God and A Streetcar Named Desire; lighting designs for Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, Urinetown, Ragtime and Pippin; and sound design for Amadeus, Agnes of God, The Miracle Worker, A Streetcar Named Desire, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Lend Me A Tenor, and Master Class.
Parrish has also performed as an actor in a variety roles, including: The Drowsy Chaperone (Superintendent), Company (Sarah), The Fantasticks (Mortimer), Black Comedy (Clea), The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 (Helsa), The Crucible (Ann Putnam), The Music Man (Ethel Tofflemeier), and La Boheme (Musetta).
Parrish has a degree in music education from Trenton State College (the College of New Jersey) and started out performing and teaching vocal. When her temporary job as a music teacher in Hamilton fell through, she got a job with the state and stayed with music, and with theater, on the side.
Zefutie has been a theater artist for nearly 20 years as an actor, director, producer and teacher. She has appeared in more than 30 plays and numerous short and feature length films, corporate videos and industrials. She taught English and drama at St. John Vianney High School in Holmdel, where she developed the drama curriculum and tripled the budget for the Performing Arts Department.
Zefutie holds a degree in English Literature and drama from Lafayette College and a law degree from Seton Hall University School of Law. She is an alumna of The National Theatre Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut and has studied at the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia.
Bisgaier, meanwhile, never had another vocation. Even as a kid in Haddonfield, he says, he never wanted to be a doctor one week and an astronaut the next.
He just wanted to be an actor. His parents were supportive enough to get him acting lessons with a woman who taught in her house and was a conduit to bigger and better productions for kids.
He went to the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, where he studied theater and realized in due time that he hated Los Angeles. After Hollywood, he bopped around several states in the northeast and southeast. He landed in New York eventually, and jumped into his ill-fated theater company.
He also met his wife, Corinna, there. They were both working waiting tables, only at different restaurants owned by the same guy. The couple later married and tried to figure out a place to live. He liked the New York scene, even if it was exhausting, but “she was from the south and loved trees,” he says. They tried living in New Jersey, just outside of Manhattan, but that didn’t work, and about 13 years ago they settled in West Windsor, which is close enough to the theater hubs of New York and Philadelphia.
Apart from that gig waiting tables back in the day, Bisgaier hasn’t had another line of work outside theater. He knows how atypical that is, and he’s grateful he’s managed to make his way through life doing the one thing he’s always wanted to do.
Parrish says Pegasus rotates what the three principals will do on each project. On the upcoming Art, she is the producer and the lighting, sound, and set design person. Zefutie is the director and Bisgaier is an actor.
Art (by French playwright Yasmina Reza) at it’s core is a comedy, Bisgaier says. A comedy that “doesn’t feel funny” as an actor. Which is good, because he needs to play it straight. The story revolves around a painting one friend buys that starts an increasingly nasty argument that brings up every possible wound into which to pour salt with two other friends, one of whom is played by Bisgaier.
Art opens on Friday, March 31, and runs again the following day and the following Saturday, April 8.
The play, Bisgaier says, follows Pegasus’ mission statement to ensure that each production explores the human condition. While he says all art should do that, what it means to Pegasus is that all productions should consider certain questions, such as “What does it mean to be a human in society,” he says.
“There has to be something in the play that triggers a response in the audience,” Parrish says. It doesn’t have to be the same response, even within the same audience. It just needs to be something that “feels honest,” she says. Something that connects people by empathy or experience or just through pure emotion.
Bisgaier says future productions will try to walk the balance between providing provocative and entertaining productions. Nothing too heavily leaning to one side or another, and no big, famous plays like The Odd Couple.
“I love The Odd Couple,” he says. “But who hasn’t seen it.”
Walking the tightrope between experimental and familiar, provocative and funny, sweet and mean is something that gives Bisgaier the thrill of theater he’s spent his life surrounding himself with. And it keeps him in touch with all the many facets of the elusive-yet-prevalent human condition.
What does that really mean? Even he’s not sure. He just knows it’s like art in general. “You know it when you see it,” he says.