By Kevin Zimmerman
William Shakespeare brought Jason and Joy Marr together.
The Woodside couple first met performing “Twelfth Night” as part of the Porthouse Theatre’s summer stock season in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
This July, the two will continue their summertime love affair with Shakespeare when their Hip to Hip Theatre Co. opens its ninth season of presenting free performances of the Bard’s works in parks throughout Queens.
“Our mission has always been to provide professional, free theater in public spaces,” Jason Marr said. “It’s like (The Public Theatre’s) Joe Papp’s mission of access — free theater for all.”
Hip to Hip, which comes from a line in Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors,” emerged from a confluence of personal and professional events in the Marrs’ lives.
As working actors, Jason and Joy spent a lot of their time performing in far-flung regional theaters across the country.
But life on the road began to wear on them. They were also itching to start a family — daughter Sabrina is 7, and son Axel is 4 — which would be impossible traveling most of the year.
Back in New York City full time, an invitation to catch a friend’s performance in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at a park in Brooklyn got the two of them thinking.
“All these people came with their kids. And we thought, ‘We should do this here,’” Joy said. “We have these talents and this experience, so how can we use it in a positive way in our neighborhood?”
In August 2007, armed with a small group of actors and little else, Hip to Hip presented “As You Like It” in Woodside’s Windmuller Park and Sunnyside’s All Saint’s Church’s courtyard. About 500 people turned out for those first performances.
“We were figuring out how to do it as we went along,” Jason said. “I remember the second year, the big thing was we need to get this into the ‘Woodside Herald.’”
Calendar listings and newspaper blurbs helped, but it was old-fashioned word-of-mouth and the development of a loyal audience that propelled the company to the next level. Hip to Hip’s audience sizes nearly doubled each summer for its first four years, so by 2010, the group was performing for about 4,000 people at eight parks around the borough.
To keep the momentum going, Jason and Joy knew they needed to seek additional funding through grants as well as to develop relationships with park officials around Queens.
They were successful at both, receiving money from the Queens Council on the Arts, and working with individual park directors to get Shakespeare on the summer bill of fare.
And Hip to Hip continues to grow.
“When we started the company, we didn’t think it would become what it is,” Jason said. “It has helped to enrich the community in many ways. Whenever you get folks to sit down together and watch a play, it’s a good thing.”