By Donna Schmidt
In 1997, Samuel Harps was wearing sunglasses.
His future looking bright, he took them off and laid them on the table. He and an actor friend, Tony Ortiz, were at SUNY Rockland Community College showing one of Harps’ plays when a gentleman approached them, “I would like to donate to your organization, what is its name?” he asked.
Harps quickly looked around, saw the shades on the surface and said, “The name of our company is Shades. Ortiz said, “yes…yes…Shades, we are a multi-cultural organization.”
Shades Repertory Theater, where Harps is the artistic director, resides in the lower level of the Central Presbyterian Church on the corner of New Main Street and Hudson Avenue in the Village of Haverstraw, New York. With Tiffany stained glass windows and American Chestnut (now nearly extinct) ceilings, the church itself is a proud and substantial entity as you enter the village.
Believed to be built around 1905, the church’s windows seem to have been purchased shortly before Louis Comfort Tiffany himself built an 84 room home in Laurelton a few miles from Oyster Bay, Long Island.
Originally from Norfolk, Virginia, Harps attended Junior High School in Germany. “I was an army brat,” he explained. “I came back to the states, to Virginia, and attended high school and college there.”
Harps worked as a journalist but his passion was writing plays. In 1988 he sent a play to New York and attained a prestigious internship at New York’s New Dramatist where he studied under playwrights August Wilson and Charles Oyamo Gordon.
He was later accepted into the Negro Ensemble Company’s playwright program, where he developed his play, “Don’t Explain,” which was first staged at New York’s famed Nuyorican Poet’s Café. The explosive drama on the tragic death, on stage, of trumpeter Lee Morgan at a Lower East Side club called Slugs. The play received seven ADELCO awards including best play and playwright.
Living in Manhattan for seven years, Harps had never heard of Rockland County until he fell in love. In love with a woman from Nyack whose parents still lived in the village. “I got lost at the end of Broadway by Hook Mountain and I thought what a perfect spot and a perfect area only 40 minutes from Manhattan. He began as the drama teacher at Pomona Junior High School and worked summers at the Rockland Youth Theater.
Then, he received a call came from the pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church, Elnado Moran. Moran’s dream was to have a Youth Theater at the church and asked Harp to head up his vision. And so the Haverstraw Youth Theater was born and Shades Repertory Theater fell into place at the Church as well.
In 2002, Harp had two sets of sisters as his first students. One set of siblings was white and one African-American. He asked them what they wanted to portray and they were very interested in subject matters that pertained to their age.
“They wanted to do an improvisational play about what it would be like to have a child,” Harps recalls. “So we came upon an idea and used the ‘What If?’ type drama. We still use that with the kids today.”
The Haverstraw Youth Theater is a free non-profit organization and Harps prides himself on having children from all backgrounds and all levels of talent. “There is so much pressure in the schools with theater now,” said Harps. “We take the kids who may not have made the school show cuts.”
For four years Ginsburg Development Companies, the Developer of the Harbors at Haverstraw, donated $20,000 a year to the Youth Theater. “I was kind of surprised when Martin Ginsburg started showing up at our town meetings,” Harps recalls. “But he assisted our cause before we became a non-profit.”
The Youth Theater is home to many professional actors who mentor the children and there is a broad base of local alumni that assist in many aspects of production.
Shades also runs feature films in conjunction with the Sols Film Festival and Rivertown Films. “We really like to keep it light and homey here,” explained Harps. “We set up tables, couches, chairs and guests arrive from all over the tri-state area.” In addition, there are often artist showings and receptions in this large, open space.
“It just seemed to happen organically,” ended Harps, who seemed genuinely happy in this standout Church on a corner in Haverstraw. I guess he will still need his sunglasses around. The future is very bright at the Haverstraw Youth Theater and Shades Repertory Theater for many years to come.
Goings on at the Youth Theater and Shades Repertory Theater in March-April:
1. William Shakespeare Scenes from his best known works April 12, 13, 14 all at 8pm. Ticket Price-TBA
2. Spring One Act Festival “The Pitch” by Carol Mark; “Vincent’s Visit” by Judith Weinshall; Bottled Up by Pat O’Connor Liberman and “Nothing” by Joelle Almodovar March 29, 30 and 31 at 8pm $12 in advance or $15 at the door
3. “Welcome to Haverstraw Village,” a film by Samuel Harps. An intimate look at one of Rockland’s most historic and diverse communities April 20 at 8 p.m. Wine and Cheese reception catered by Union Restaurant and Antoine McGuires.
4. Youth Theater “The Tree on Lombard Street;” April 27, 28 at 8 p.m. Price: TBA
5. Playwriting From Beginning to End 8 week course; Writing for Screen 8 week course
For further info: Haverstraw Youth Theater and Shades Repertory Theater; 64 New Main Street; 845-675-8044