I grew up in Ambler, Pennsylvania, a small suburb just outside Philadelphia. Amblerians, in general, assume Philadelphian culture: we cheer for the Eagles, devour soft pretzels with mustard, and vacation to the Jersey Shore. When I moved to Princeton three years ago, I saw that Princetonians do not assume the cultural identity of either of the two surrounding major cities. Princeton has its own community, its own culture. Princetonians walk down Witherspoon Street with a cup of Small World coffee and eavesdrop on conversations in French, German, and Guatemalan. Families swarm the Bent Spoon ice cream shop on Saturdays, couples horde Library Square for square dancing on Tuesdays. Whether one is university affiliated or simply a resident, people feel a sense of community in Princeton.
I discovered that Stephen Howe, the Staging Supervisor at the McCarter Theater, shares my admiration for this town. When I set out to interview Mr. Howe, I was unsure how an Oral History interview could capture the “Sound of Princeton”. Wouldn’t he just be telling me stories of High School musical theater, or how is family was (or wasn’t) supportive of his career path? How could an individual’s story encapsulate the soundscape of a town? I never met Mr. Howe before; I was very fortunate to get an interview. I did not know if he would be talkative or taciturn, so I filled my notebook with potential questions.
I met Mr. Howe at the gate of McCarter. I found it amusing how easily he could switch between an amiable conversation with me and the professional discourse of his walkie-talkie. We continued to the stage, where I explained the class assignment. Despite a couple of awkward moments as I fumbled to set up the camera, the interview was a wonderful experience. Mr. Howe exuded passion for his home, his team, and his work. Genuinely captivated, it was easy to formulate questions to keep the interview flowing.
What interested me the most, however, were Mr. Howe’s stories of past performances at McCarter. He told stories of super stars and stories of unknowns artists, stories of touching appreciation and stories of the predictable divas. With each show, he and his team strive for the same level of excellence. The highest reward is the sense of awe and community pride emulating from the audience when they attend an incredible, professional show in their hometown.
If you live in New York City or Philadelphia, you automatically expect the highest caliber of performances. You expect the leading stars, you expect the niche-y shows with limited venues. Living in Princeton, however, you do not expect the same quality. Therefore, when McCarter offers the biggest names or the niche-y shows, audiences feel a sense of community pride. “Billy Joel is performing here, in my hometown!” “I can’t believe this violinist is here!”, etc. Mr. Howe’s history, his life experiences taught me the importance of a place like McCarter in the community.