There are quite a few ways one might have gotten to know the Zarrilli family of Brick Township over the years.
For starters, Anthony and Kendra Zarrilli may have built your home. You may have heard they purchased and transformed the Mantoloking Ale House into the popular family restaurant and bar it is today. Or, if your children participate in live theater, Kendra Zarrilli is likely the person who introduced you to the Brick Children’s Community Theater (BCCT) group, known for years for its masterful presentation of youth stage productions.
From a family where entrepreneurship and community involvement have often intertwined will soon come a new venture: Brick Township’s first dedicated playhouse and arts studio. What has long been a non-descript, spartan-looking building on Mantoloking Road that has served as a boat yard and a few similar businesses will, like the restaurant nearly across the street, be transformed into something new – Brick’s first live theater and arts venue. The township’s planning board, last week, memorialized its unanimous approval of the Zarrillis’ application to renovate and expand the building at 266 Mantoloking Road in order to realize their dream.
The idea for what will eventually become a 120-seat theater for live stage productions as well as musical performances and similar events was conceived as many new ventures over the last few years have: overcoming challenges presented by the pandemic. The BCCT group had long held their productions, which drew thousands of attendees over the course of a run of shows, at the Strand Theater in Lakewood. Suddenly, the group found themselves without a home.
“Long story short, we were two weeks out from a show and a day away from one of our major fundraisers when everything closed up,” said Kendra Zarrilli. “During that lockdown time, we’d sit around and ask ourselves, ‘what are we going to do?’ knowing that theater would probably not make it back until a lot of other things did first.”
A news segment on a park in New York designating outdoor socially-distant spaces for theatergoers sparked an idea to do the same in Brick, and after New Jersey eased some restrictions and allowed events with up to 500 people outdoors, township officials were more than happy to allow the group to put on an outdoor show at Windward Beach.
“The thing was, when we were ready to go back into the Strand theater, they weren’t ready for us,” Zarrilli said. “There was another, ‘what do we do now?’ moment since nobody was going to perform or come out to an outdoor theater production in the middle of the winter.”
BCCT sought help from the Grunin Center, which was able to squeeze in some performances, as well as the Stafford Township Arts Center, but the Grunin Center’s schedule was already steadily booked and Stafford’s facility was a bit of a distance away, 45 minutes down the Parkway.
It was time for a place BCCT could call home – and also serve as a shot in the arm for the arts community in Brick as a whole, which has always been relegated to venues in other towns.
“We looked at a few pieces of property in town, and we went to town hall just for a fact-finding meeting, asking if this was something that might work in Brick, and the reception was wonderful,” said Zarrilli.
The reality, however, was that building a theater from scratch was going to be a heavy lift – perhaps one just a bit too heavy.
“Something like that could take years of work and a few hundred thousand dollars just to get the paperwork done before we could even put a shovel in the ground, and that was just too much,” she said. “So we started seeing if there was a building we could convert.”
As it turned out, the building was practically across the street.
“We passed it every day, and one time it just dawned on me, ‘what about that building?” Zarrilli recalled. “It was a good piece of property, in a good zone and had plenty of parking. It was someplace where we could hold both classes and performances.”
Well-experienced in building, renovating and obtaining permits and zoning plans, the family went to work plotting out the opportunities such a venue could produce.
“The primary reason for buying the building was always going to be a home for Brick Children’s Community Theater, but outside of that, we started thinking about what we could do to fill in the rest of the time,” Zarrilli said. “Everybody has come with new and fresh ideas, whether it’s from nonprofits, the old Strand staff, movie nights, comedians, maybe dinner-and-a-show since the Mantoloking Ale House is across the street.”
Music will also play a significant role in the playhouse’s future.
“We were also thinking of some of the local music teachers who teach piano and guitar – they’re always looking for a space where they can have a recital without breaking the bank,” she said. “There’s nothing like that around here, so in addition to BCCT, there are a lot of others things we’ll be able to do.”
Once plans began to come together, Anthony Zarrilli quickly tapped into his own creative side and thought up an interesting renovation plan to capture the experience of much larger theaters in the more intimate space the Mantoloking Road building could provide. The theater would already have nine-foot ceilings since the building had been used as a business, but what could be done with the unused basement portion?
“‘What if we take out the floor so we have the whole area from the basement already up?'” Anthony said.
“We realized we could have 20-foot ceilings, a drop down and great acoustics,” said Kendra.
Indeed, work on that portion of the project has already begun. But naturally, it will take some time to obtain permits, complete larger renovation projects and expand the building with new entrances and accessible restrooms. It is, however, a labor of love.
“My husband and I are very passionate about what we do and about theater, our girls both participated, and our one daughter is currently studying musical theater in college,” Kendra Zarrilli said. “It’s just something very near and dear to us.”
In addition to allowing the BCCT organization to plot its own destiny, Zarrilli hopes the playhouse will give a home to productions and performances that otherwise may never have had the space to come to fruition.
“It’s going to be small, compared to what we were used to, but it gives us so much flexibility,” she said. “We can do things that won’t have to attract 5,000 people, but the kids and directors have really wanted to do. We can do a show with little kids – one or two performances with just the parents and grandparents. We think we can have a lot of fun, and do a lot of community outreach that we’ve thought about for so long but just never had a place to do it.”
The venue will represent new life in Brick’s arts community, but most importantly, it will be built on the love of having fun and opening up new opportunities for residents to enjoy themselves.
“The thought of everything this place can be has made it that much more exciting,” Zarrilli said.