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The Dream Team that Made a Small Town Big: Interview with Erin Reilly and Matthew Decker of Theatre Horizon

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Theatre Horizon (TH) is a professional nonprofit theatre company headquartered in Norristown, Pennsylvania, 20 miles west of Philadelphia. Since its inception, TH has presented critically-acclaimed productions that fulfill its mission of connecting audiences and students with professional theatre artists through relevant and compelling theatre. TH has received multiple Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre. The company has presented original works and developed an extensive education program that reaches hundreds of students annually in the greater Philadelphia area. Through theatre, the company creates a community of artists, students, and audiences in which each member is encouraged to grow.

Erin Reilly and Matthew Decker. Photo by Linda Decker.

Erin Reilly and Matthew Decker. Photo by Linda Decker.

Erin Reilly, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, co-founded Theatre Horizon with Matthew Decker in 2005, and led a $1 million campaign to build a new venue for the company in Norristown in 2012. Erin has directed over 15 productions, and, as an Equity actress, has performed on numerous area stages, including the Wilma Theater and the Walnut Street Theatre. Twelve years ago, she established Theatre Horizon’s Education Department, serving over 900 children annually. She helped to found Theatre Philadelphia and currently serves as Board President. Erin was named one of Philadelphia’s 76 Creative Connectors by Leadership Philadelphia.

Matthew Decker is a three-time Barrymore Award winner and graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he studied at the Atlantic Theatre Company. He is the Co-Founder and Resident Director of Theatre Horizon and Associate Artistic Director at Arden Theatre Company. His credits include work at 11th Hour, InterAct (Core Playwrights), Philly Fringe, PTC@Play, Villanova University, and the Walnut Street Theatre. Next season, he will be directing Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret at the Arden and Peter and the Starcatcher at Theatre Horizon.

Henrik: Could you share some of your earliest memories from childhood that drew you to the theatre world?  

Matthew: I grew up in the Philadelphia area. My mother used to take me to see plays at local community theatres when I was a kid. And my dad played guitar and piano all the time, leading my sister and me in living room sing-alongs. Because I was a very shy kid, they encouraged my interest in books. As a result, I became quite the voracious reader. I always felt a strong pull toward stories and music, but had terrible stage fright whenever I had to perform in elementary school pageants. It wasn’t until middle school when some teachers encouraged me to try out for the school plays, where I found kids just like me. Having a support system within my peer group gave me the confidence to be onstage. Coincidently, that’s the time I met Erin. We’ve been friends for twenty-five years.

What were the most important things that you learned about directing, supporting, and running a small theater before you worked at Theatre Horizon?

Matthew: I had done some internships with producers in New York, but we really were just brave and naive. Mostly naive. We were so young when we started TH that we really learned by doing. We made mistakes on the regular, and from those failures, reevaluated strategies.

The Philadelphia theatre community is extremely generous when it comes to mentorships. In the beginning days, Erin and I talked to a lot of theater leaders in town who shared their time and insights. If we had a question, we reached out and asked. And they responded. They still do.

After moving back to Philadelphia from New York, I assistant-directed Terry Nolen at the Arden on a couple of projects. I learned a lot about directing from him. He gave me great advice: “Stop assisting and start directing. That’s how you will learn.” So I did. I carry that advice with me to this day. Every story and every artist I work with teaches me something. That’s one of the best things about this job.

Although Theatre Horizon sits, tucked away, in working class Norristown, your productions, including Philadelphia and East Coast premieres, were so special that you not only received one raving review after another, but won quite a few awards. What were the main ingredients that led to that extraordinary success, apart from free tickets for all Norristown residents?

Erin: Our success is due in large part to programming exciting seasons. I constantly ask myself, “Does this play uphold our institutional values: celebrating the underdog, highlighting resilience, helping the viewer learn something new and better about themselves or their world? Does it present a diversity of roles—both racial and gender— and a balance of female and male playwrights and directors? Can we sell it to our core audience? Will it help us reach new constituencies? Can we logistically produce it well, given our production budget size?”

Matthew: I think also we’ve been lucky to attract the quality of actors, directors and designers who have worked with us. That is a testament to the programming, but also because we knew that Theatre Horizon would only be as successful as the Philadelphia artists we could get to come out and work in Norristown. We put a lot of time and effort into cultivating relationships with those artists over the years, which has strengthened the quality and integrity of our work.

James Ijames. Photo by Ryan Collerd, courtesy of The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

James Ijames. Photo by Ryan Collerd, courtesy of The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

James Ijames is one of the most talked about up-and-coming playwrights in Philadelphia. Even though the powerful Philadelphia Theatre Company had the right of first refusal, you managed to get the rights for the world premiere of White. Tell us more about that process and what it was like working with James on this production.

Erin: When PTC decided not to produce White, I asked James if Theatre Horizon could do it and he said yes. They say that collaboration moves at the speed of trust. James trusted us to bring this incredibly complex work to its first audience and so the collaboration was wonderful. He is a generous, brave, and compassionate artist to work with.

What are your plans for this year and the foreseeable future?

Erin: I’m having my third child in July. While I’ll be on maternity leave and a short sabbatical during the 2017-18 season, I’m looking forward to observing how next year’s plays at Horizon continue the dialogue we’ve been in with our audience for the last decade.

We are in the Year of the Woman. All over the U.S., women are mobilizing to run for elected office, working in partnership with men to campaign for women’s rights, and fighting for inclusion and equal justice for marginalized groups. I believe that when women embrace their own agency to build a kinder, more just world, powerful shifts can happen. So I wanted to organize an entire year of shows around strong heroines. We’ll continue our long-time commitment to female directors and playwrights. Next season also brings powerhouse actresses to our stage. Therefore, our tagline is “A season of women who dare.”

Matthew: Yes! I echo Erin’s excitement about next season and the stories we are telling. Lisa Kron (2.5 Mile Ride) and Lauren Gunderson (The Revolutionists) are two of the most dynamic and accomplished writers working in the American theatre, and to present the Philadelphia premieres of their plays is such a coup. Similarly, our approach to Peter and the Starcatcher—a play usually done with a cast of all men and only one womanwill include more women in the ensemble. We will also be presenting the world premiere of Hero School, an interactive children’s theatre experience that allows kids to attend training to become a superhero. Presenting work for kids is a brand-new endeavor for us, but feels like a natural extension of the work we do with our after-school drama clubs, Saturday classes, and our Autism Drama program.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

Erin: We are proud to be one of the first companies to develop a class for children with Autism. Our Autism Drama Program is now in its 10th year, having educated over 400 children and young adults with autism!

Thank you both and everyone involved at Theatre Horizon who helped you become the dream team that made a small town big.

Samantha Rosentrater and Randy Nuñez. Photo by Matthew J. Photography.

Samantha Rosentrater and Randy Nuñez in Theatre Horizon’s Grand Concourse. Photo by Matthew J. Photography.

To learn more about Theatre Horizon and their upcoming shows, visit www.theatrehorizon.org.

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One Response to The Dream Team that Made a Small Town Big: Interview with Erin Reilly and Matthew Decker of Theatre Horizon

  1. Ravelle Brickman June 9, 2017 at 6:08 pm #

    This is a lovely interview!