Arts & Community Collaborate In New Merseles Studios
Olga Levina and Ben LoPiccolo
As if working on the restoration of White Eagle Hall Theater was not a substantial time-consuming commitment on its own, power duo Olga Levina and Ben LoPiccolo decided to take on another venture after being inspired by the Jersey City artistic community.
“A lot of artists came to us and said, ‘We see what you’re doing with this building. Why don’t you make studios for artists?'” said Olga, a theater and dance professional. She and husband Ben, an award-winning real estate developer, quickly realized that local artists needed a place where they could work and grow. They were determined to create that brick-and-mortar space for Jersey City residents.
While the restored White Eagle Hall will bring national acts to Jersey City and make it a destination for theater-goers, the Jersey City Theater Center (JCTC) founders wanted to fill the void for smaller community groups by creating a “workshop environment where artists have smaller audiences and can develop their craft.” By sheer coincidence, a property opened up next door to the theater, and the couple jumped on the opportunity.
Merseles Studios, (339 Newark Ave.) is a 5,000-square-foot facility featuring performance space, an art gallery, and ten private work spaces. The complex boasts 12.5-foot-high ceilings and large windows that provide plenty of natural light for art professionals working in all mediums. Its name comes from Merseles Street, which runs along the northern side of the building and is one of the oldest street names in Jersey City, a lasting legacy of a Dutch family whose members were some of Jersey City’s earliest settlers.
The most famous Merseles is Jacob M. Merseles (1812-1865), whose obituary states that he was “active in politics and civic life,” and was the first to expedite daily travel between Bayonne, Hoboken and Jersey City by founding the Point Breezy Ferry Service in a livery stable in what was then called “old Jersey City,” and became the first commuter transit system in Hudson County.
“It’s important to preserve history in every project,” says Ben. “Using the name Merseles Studios on a modern building helps commemorate the good deeds of a forgotten Jersey City citizen.”
In addition to bringing in theater, music and performances suitable for intimate audiences, Merseles Studios’ concept also revolves around workshops and Q & A sessions with other artists and the community as a whole. It is a laboratory where artists can improve their craft via conversation and collaboration with locals. “Our participation with the community is just as important, if not more important, than the art itself,” Olga says.
She offers an anecdote to elaborate: “A director sent me a play that was beautifully written and I wanted him to come in and discuss it. He said, ‘It’s not what I really want to talk about; what I really want to talk about is too painful.’ I said ‘Then that’s what I want you to talk about.’ Those are the projects I want, those that touch people personally. Art is universal. It’s a dialogue about human feelings. We can all relate to the questions it raises. No community will support something they don’t trust, don’t care for, or don’t learn from. This is an atmosphere that is about a conversation as a community.”
Merseles Studios Opening Gala, “Personal & Universal,” takes place on April 26 and features upcoming original theater works, dance, visual-arts and music. Acts include “Eugene,” a multidisciplinary exploration of spirit, music, and movement by Ladell Mclin, virtuoso blues guitarist, and Myssi Robinson, dancer/movement artist; “So What If I Loved You,” a one-woman show of interrelated monologues about a young woman haunted by memories of a lost lover, written by and starring Summer Dawn Hortillosa; and “Requiem for the Maiden” by Natalia Vorozhbit, a theater-piece exploring the political conflict in Ukraine.
Additionally, Jersey City-based singer/songwriter Kelly Saint Patrick will be premiering songs from her soon-to-be-released CD, and the gallery, a hall that leads to the rental studios, will have its opening exhibition. Thomas John Carlson, Visual Arts Director of JCTC and founder of the Jersey City Arts School, is the curator.
Ben explains that besides the opening gala, on any given day, “While theater is happening on one end, people are able to walk around and view the art in the gallery space.” The permanent art gallery will showcase regional and Jersey City artists.
Children are encouraged to participate in the arts conversation as well with their own programming. JCTC-Kids presents puppetry and youth theater on weekends and select weekdays and also provides customized theater events for teenagers and young adults, especially for the low-income, at-risk and minority populations. “I became a theater professional because I was introduced at a very young age,” Olga says. If children are taken to the theater, they are more likely to be theater-goers in adulthood―and support the arts.” In addition to JCTC programming, Merseles Studios Theater is available for rent for private and corporate events.
Ben believes that a city should develop with its artists―that city development and its artistic roots should be able to coexist. “It’s unfair that artists devote a lot of their time to make the city special. They should have support. You have to keep supporting the arts to regenerate,” he says. “With this studio space, we hope to achieve artistic excellence that has no borders.”
The opening gala will be held at Merseles Studios, 339-345 Newark Ave. admission is $15 ($20 at the door.) To purchase tickets online, visit the JCTC website at JCTCenter.org. All proceeds go to Jersey City Theater Center, Inc – a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization committed to developing a performing and visual arts center in Jersey City for professional artists, businesses, the community and visiting tourists.
JCI is a proud media sponsor of the upcoming gala.
Photo by Mickey Mathis