Premiere Stages at Kean Receives Statewide Award for Leadership in Arts Access

UNION, N.J. –– Premiere Stages, the professional Equity theatre in residence at Kean University, received a Leadership Award from the Cultural Access Network Project (CAN) for its exemplary work with actors, playwrights, directors, and other theatre artists with disabilities. The ninth annual Excellence in Cultural Access Awards were held on Thursday, June 22, at Grounds for Sculpture. Attended by leaders and activists in the state’s arts and cultural community, the event featured a keynote by Valerie Fletcher, executive director of the Institute of Human Centered Design, roundtables, pop-up galleries with artwork by artists with disabilities, and a staged reading by Premiere Stages actors.Premiere Stages at Kean University wins Leadership Award from Cultural Access Network

Under the leadership of Producing Artistic Director John J. Wooten, Premiere Stages has partnered with the Arts Access program at Matheny Medical and Educational Center since 2015 to help their theatre artists, some with medically complex disabilities, see their work come to life on stage. The playwrights are an integral part of the staging process, offering direct feedback to the actors on how to best present their written work, and in some cases appearing in the plays themselves.

“At Matheny I was introduced to a superhero who could convert his wheelchair into a spaceship, a talking fish named Pinky, and a groom who disrupted seven weddings before finally marrying the love of his life,” said Wooten. “These characters were not the playwrights, but magical people they brought to life through their extremely inventive and compelling plays, many of which continue to resonate with me.”

Eileen Murray, director of the Arts Access program at Matheny, presented Wooten and the Premiere Stages team with their award.

“This professional and outstanding theatre company is deeply dedicated to true inclusion in the arts,” she said. “They are fully committed to accessibility, but even more importantly, they embody it.”

Premiere Stages is currently working with New Jersey playwright Nicole Pandolfo on a commissioned play to premiere in October. Brick City is about two high-school seniors in Newark—one a combative artist who uses a wheelchair, the other the star of the basketball team who has a learning disability—who help each other make tough decisions about their futures. Earlier this year, Premiere Stages was selected as a recipient of the NJPAC Stage Exchange Commission, administered by NJPAC in partnership with the New Jersey Theatre Alliance. Premiere commissioned Pandolfo’s Brick City, including the casting of a disabled actress for all initial readings of the script.

In 2016 and 2017, Premiere Stages partnered with the Alliance, Atlantic Health System and Writers Theatre of New Jersey to present Healing Voices Onstage: Caregivers’ Stories, which weaves together short works of prose, poetry and dramatic monologues/scenes by personal and professional caregivers into an original theatrical piece, and has expanded to incorporate submissions by those receiving care.

This summer, construction is set to begin on a new ADA-accessible ramp to Premiere’s primary producing venue, the Zella Fry Theatre at Kean University, significantly reducing the current distance from accessible parking spaces to the entrance to the theatre. On the virtual front, Premiere’s new, mobile-friendly website incorporates a number of accessibility improvements, including an alternate text function, a clear hierarchy with markup headlines, a larger font size for the visually impaired, a 360-degree virtual tour of the venue, and links to public transit options for patrons with limited mobility.

“Premiere Stages will continue to champion a wide diversity of artists and celebrate a message of inclusiveness,” said Wooten.

John McEwen, executive director of New Jersey Theatre Alliance,

Created in 2004, Premiere Stages is the professional Equity theatre in residence at Kean University. Through its unique partnership with Kean, Premiere’s play development programs, educational initiatives, and professional development opportunities actively embrace the university's academic curriculum while expanding the scope, accessibility, and prestige of the professional programming on campus. For more information, please visit Premiere Stages online at

Founded in 1855, Kean University has become one of the largest metropolitan institutions of higher education in the region, with a richly diverse student, faculty and staff population. Kean continues to play a key role in the training of teachers and is a hub of educational, technological and cultural enrichment serving nearly 15,000 students. The University’s five undergraduate colleges offer more than 50 undergraduate degrees over a full range of academic subjects. The Nathan Weiss Graduate College offers four doctoral degree programs and more than 60 options for graduate study leading to master’s degrees, professional diplomas or certifications. With campuses in Union and Toms River, New Jersey, and Wenzhou, China, Kean University furthers its mission by providing an affordable and accessible world-class education.  Visit


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Millie Gonzalez
University Relations/Kean University | (908) 737-0586


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