MORRISTOWN — Sandwiched between two vibrant arts communities in New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey is home to 35 professional theater companies that offer affordable entertainment and endless opportunities for actors and designers.

The historic theaters these companies call home often are focal points in their towns, like in the case of the 2016 Regional Theatre Tony Award-winning Paper Mill Playhouse. In the last decade, Paper Mill has housed the world premieres of at least four musicals ("Newsies," "Honeymoon in Vegas," "Bandstand," and "A Bronx Tale") that later transferred to Broadway.

"There's a number of theaters that are moving productions into the city, so you get to see them here in New Jersey less expensively and with less hassle," Robert Carr, director of programs and services for the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, said.

But for Paper Mill's hometown of Millburn, that has meant flourishing restaurants and shops in the downtown area. Similarly, the recently reopened Surflight Theatre on Long Beach Island has boosted eateries and foot traffic in Beach Haven.

"They all are businesses within their own community, so they are not only great providers of entertainment, but they're also little economic engines within each of their communities," Carr said.

And because of the proximity of New York City to some of New Jersey's northern suburbs, there is a good chance you may see seasoned Broadway actors in a New Jersey show, or see them start their careers here and then move to the Great White Way.

"They're jumping on the train and going in to do a show, and they come home and they live their lives here in the great state of New Jersey, which is really great," Carr said.

Perhaps most importantly, New Jersey has been at the forefront of developing "relaxed" performances, initially known as "sensory-friendly," for theatergoers on the autism spectrum and their families. The Theatre Alliance has partnered with the New Jersey State Council on the Arts to start the Cultural Access Network Project, which aims to bring theater in New Jersey up to speed with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Open-captioned and sign-interpreted presentations are key elements of this, as are those relaxed shows at which kids can get up from their seats and move around. Lighting and sound cues are softened.

"It gives families an opportunity — some families, for the first time — to enjoy a performance as a family," Carr said.

Professional theater can be seen in all 21 counties in the Garden State, including, as Carr mentioned, with the Pushcart Players, routinely hired by schools and community groups to bring live performances to young audiences. And new works and playwrights are being showcased all the time.

For what might be considered off-off-off-Broadway, that's a pretty good start.

Patrick Lavery is Senior Producer of Morning News and Special Programming for New Jersey 101.5, and is lead reporter and substitute anchor for "New Jersey's First News." He is a former child actor who appeared as Chip in the Broadway cast of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" from 1994 to 1996. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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