Bristol Riverside Theatre (BRT) producing directors Amy and Ken Kaissar came to Bucks County in 2009 from Midtown Manhattan because Amy took the job as BRT’s managing director. Ken was a freelance director and playwright and went with her. Amy was in that tenure for about five years when she decided she wanted to start raising money for Broadway shows.
“At that point we were thinking about leaving Bucks County, but we loved it here so much because the lifestyle is so relaxed,” said Ken Kaissar. “The community is wonderful; the people are friendly. We fit in really nicely. This is a community of people who really take pride in Bucks, and they take care of what they have here, and we grew to fall in love with that.”
The couple wanted to be among people that are invested in their community. So, when Keith and Susan announced retirement, and it was known that Bristol Riverside Theater was going to do a search for new leadership, they put their hat in the ring and were hired to be the new leadership.
“We might have left after Amy’s initial tenure was up, but we just loved it so much,” said Kaissar. “All the stars aligned. And we are so happy now that our careers are really focused on this community and making work here for the people that we love.”
Their goal is to make a world class professional theater available to Bristol, Bristol Township, and all of Bucks County. “I don’t think it’s every town the size of Bristol that has a professional regional theater living within it, so I think it’s a really special thing,” said Kaissar. “Usually, theaters of our level you find at bigger cities like Indianapolis or Minneapolis or Columbus, Ohio. But here we are in this small town that’s part of Bucks County, and we’re a fully thriving professional equity theater.”
Their building was a movie theater going back to the 1940s and 50s in Bristol and then the town fell on hard times. “At one point the theater became an adult entertainment movie theater, which was a shame because that shows the deterioration,” said Kaissar.
In 1986, the Grundy Foundation, whose job is to make life livable here, decided to shut down the adult entertainment theater and make it a live arts theater. “And since 1986, they’ve been occupied here and pumping art instead of smut into the community and I think everybody was grateful for that. It’s a wonderful outlet for wonderful entertainment for families, for adults, for kids, for everybody,” he said.
Indeed, Bristol Riverside Theatre has become an economic driver who people visiting town to see their shows. “Of course, they’re going to have dinner beforehand,” said Kaissar. “That generates a lot of business. And it’s just a really positive thing to anchor this town and we’re very proud of that. We’re very proud of our relationship with the community, and, and we’re proud of how they’ve sort of come to rely on us to give them a little piece of art right here in their backyard.”
A Raisin in the Sun runs from January 30, 2024 – February 18, 2024, at BRT.
Kaissar loves A Raisin in the Sun because it is quintessentially an American play because it interrogates the American dream. “It’s in the same tradition as Death of a Salesman or All My Sons that really looks at what we ask of Americans to aspire to and the emphasis that we put on what it means to buy a house in this country,” he said. “That’s what this family is trying to do. They’re buying a house and trying to retain a little bit of generational wealth into their family history. And in this case, they get a barrier put in front of them that the Lomans in Death of a Salesman don’t have, which is race.”
Kaissar thinks that racial inequality, unfortunately, is still relevant. “We’re still having conversations about systemic racism and things of that nature,” he said. “This play is a reminder of how relevant it still is. What’s great about this play is that we can agree that the challenges placed in front of the Younger family are unjust. I don’t think any of us want to live in a society where there’s a group of people that are prevented from moving into a neighborhood they want to live in on the basis of their ethnicity.”
Kaissar said this play unites us all in our response to it and reminds us to take a look at our society and remember that we’re all just people and we all want equality. “We all want to exist on an equal playing field, and we have to remain vigilant to make sure that that stays true for all people,” he said.
Their goal for A Raisin in the Sun is to have every house filled – 300 seats seven times a week for three weeks. Kaissar said the popularity for a student matinee went through the roof, so they have three student matinees throughout the run at 10:00 AM. “They’re going to be at 10:00 AM to a full house of students as part of their school day,” he said proudly. “Because this is such an educational play and it’s in the canon of great American dramatic literature, it’s really exciting to be sharing it with the students and hopefully they’ll infect them with a love and passion of theater, and they’ll sort of discover what theater can provide for them that the cinema or television cannot.”
Kaissar and team did a search for cast members from New York to Philadelphia; they’re always casting professional actors. Director Lisa Strum lives in New York but is a Philly native. “That makes it extra special for us that she’s directing the show,” he said. “And our assistant director Tamara Anderson is also a Philly resident, but originally from the south side of Chicago where the play takes place. That makes that even more meaningful – she gives us a nice sense of the culture of the south side of Chicago and infuses that into the show.”
Strum came to Bristol in July, and they started doing the search, looking at local actors in Philadelphia, and then they went to New York and scouted for actors there. “We were just looking for actors who can genuinely bring these characters to life, and really live and breathe these characters,” concluded Kaissar.