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Hunterdon Life

Ambitious incubator ArtYard anchors Frenchtown arts scene


For those looking to take in a first-rate show without the big city ticket prices and hassles, the McDonnell Theater in Frenchtown may fit the bill.

Its fans say this small-town theater’s shows are anything but “small” in vision and scope. Housed in ArtYard, the popular interdisciplinary art center, the McDonnell Theater welcomes emerging and established artists from the community and the world. Performances have included beatbox artists, circus actors, cabaret singers, dancers, and poets. There are also film festivals, puppet shows and plays.

Renee Olson, owner of the gift shop Sublime in Frenchtown, says that shows at the McDonnell Theater “open up worlds I am privileged to inhabit for the first time” and describes ArtYard as a “cultural blessing and a vibrant anchor of Frenchtown.”

Serving as an incubator for creative expression, ArtYard, quite fittingly, is in a building that was the former site of an egg hatchery. The creativity at ArtYard extends throughout picturesque Frenchtown.

The charming river town of 1,400 residents bustles with artists, locals and tourists supporting its independent stores and coffee shops.

McDonnell Theater patrons often stroll to ArtYard after shopping locally and dining at nearby restaurants. After entering ArtYard, ticket-holders browse the gallery exhibits as they make their way to the second-floor theater, perhaps stopping to enjoy a magnificent river view from one of the large picture windows in the theater lobby.

Before a show, the lobby bustles with a pleasant hum and the lively chatter of excited theatergoers. For many patrons, the experience at the McDonnell Theater is so delightful and enchanting that one visit is simply not enough.

First-time visitors should not be deceived by the small-town vibe. The simultaneously intimate and grand theater offers state-of-the-art projection, lighting and surround sound.

Artist Willie Cole’s enormous and captivating water bottle chandelier hangs suspended from the theater ceiling, swaying almost imperceptibly over steeply pitched seats. All 162 seats in the house provide unobstructed views of the stage.

One of the McDonnell Theater’s recent performers was the Brooklyn-based Red Baraat, dubbed by NPR “the best party band in years.” Led by charismatic Sunny Jain on the dhol (a South Asian drum), the band’s seven musicians played an extraordinary mix of South Indian bhangra, New Orleans brass, funk, pop, and rock against a backdrop of kaleidoscopic images.

Jain taught an eager audience a basic bhangra dance move: raise your hands high, form a circle with your index finger and thumb, and flick your wrists forward and back. Within minutes, the entire audience was fully engaged, dancing in their seats and the aisles to the hypnotic and rhythmic vibes of the drum and brass instruments.

Later in the show, Jain invited six audience members on stage for an impromptu dance contest. To the enthusiastic cheers of the audience, dancers, including 77-year-old Yolanda Elmes of Flemington, took turns in the spotlight, encouraged by Jain.

“You can’t always quite know what our music is and put a label on it,” Jain noted, “but I think it speaks to the fact that sound vibrations impact people.”

Lisa Zaretsky, of Stockton, and Sandy Constable, of Frenchtown, called the show both “joyful” and “ecstatic.”

The audience’s enthusiastic response to Red Baraat is typical for the McDonnell Theater. Last year, ArtYard’s inaugural playwright-in-residence, TyLie Shider, staged whittier, his docudrama about the lives of a community of neighbors after the murder of George Floyd.

“Frenchtown locals,” Shider noted, “stopped me in the coffee shop the next morning to tell me how much they enjoyed the show.”

He added, “It is terribly important to have this sort of regional support.”

A standout performance for ArtYard Communications Director Meghan Van Dyk was “(IN)TANGIBLE,” a dramatic circus play by artist Brianna Kalisch about a woman visited by her children and memories in a story of love and dementia. The story was told unconventionally through theater and narrative circus.

“We host a variety of events at ArtYard that enable people to think differently,” Van Dyk explained.

A well-received event by McDonnell Theater patrons was a jazz orchestra led by Arthur Vint playing music set to spaghetti Western movie clips shown on a two-story backdrop screen. An exhibition of spaghetti Western drawings by local artist Joe Ciardello was on view outside the theater.

Original performances like these are common at the McDonnell Theater. They are thought-provoking, deeply engaging, and immersive.

“It feels like such a joy when you are able to learn about something new and see passion and creativity right before your eyes,” Van Dyk said.

To learn more and browse upcoming events, visit

Beth Zarret writes occasional columns about the people and places in her beloved towns of New Hope and Lambertville.

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