Experiencing his fin-est hour


Everyone eventually says farewell to some sources of fascination, but the preservation of preferences, particularly those from youth and adolescence, can prove incredibly beneficial to one’s artistic impulses. Robert DaPonte has nurtured admiration for “Jaws” for some time and is ensuring that the movie will never grow long in the tooth for his taste through “The Jaws Project,” an homage to the Steven Spielberg masterpiece and the fondness the 36-year-old has for his native New England.

“It’s been near and dear to me for so long,” the resident of the 1400 block of South Clarion Street said of the 1975 film that called on Martha’s Vineyard as the location for what an accompanying show release dubs “a legendarily disastrous production that resulted in one of the greatest movies of all time and an unprecedented financial success.” “I wanted to tackle it to tell the story from the perspective of the locals who experienced the shoot.”

To do so, the Passyunk Square dweller united with South Philadelphia-based peers Sam Henderson and Mary Tuomanen to create “a wicked rude comedy, an unlikely love story, and an unflinching examination of a turning point in American culture.” Handling all of the roles in the devised piece, the trio is presenting the result of regard for the classic through Independence Day, with the Plays & Players Skinner Studio Theater helping them to sink their teeth further into the original’s mystique.

“This project is pretty precious to us,” DaPonte said of the brainchild. “I feel amazingly fortunate to be able to team up with Sam and Mary because they’re such respected and passionate members of the Philadelphia theater community.”

He approached Henderson last summer when the latter figure was crafting the FringeArts Festival offering “Damned Dirty Apes,” with performances at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, Broad Street and Pattison Avenue. Sort of forgetting the idea of collaborating, DaPonte jogged his interest when learning of Tuomanen’s enthusiasm for the concept. Taking shape quite quickly once the triumvirate believed it could go swimmingly, “The Jaws Project,” through a romance between a production assistant and a Black Dog Tavern bartender, treats what press material describes as “the stark differences between invader and invaded, Hollywood and clannish New England.”

“It’s something that we want to use to entertain, so there’s definitely confidence in what we’re staging because we’ve come to everything honestly,” DaPonte said prior to its June 26 premiere. “Because of that, I feel it’s already succeeded. I’m definitely a proud father.”

The Rhode Island product initially acted as the patriarch of creative writing efforts, beginning his infatuation by penning short stories. Theater eventually became his primary discipline, with enrollment at the since-shuttered Bradford College in Haverhill, Massachusetts serving as the source of a robust attraction to instant gratification.

“I tried to do as much as I could and work as much as possible,” DaPonte, who added acting tutelage through the Waterford, Connecticut-situated National Theater Institute, said of his immersion into stage-based endeavors. “It became so empowering not only to gain experience but also to take part in such a collaborative act and obtain access to an entirely new strata of individuals with similar drives.”

Holding that theater “starts and ends with passion,” DaPonte decided to gamble on Philadelphia as the place where he could romance plots and long for opportunities to revisit his writing desires. The now-defunct Mum Puppettheatre granted him his inaugural chance as a City of Brotherly Love inhabitant, with the hire finding himself eager to foster the expanse’s reputation as a welcoming stretch for those with boundless ambition.

“There’s definitely work here, and it’s especially exciting to have great connections with people who love to collaborate and create,” DaPonte said. “It’s such an amazing time where there are groups such as Pig Iron Theatre Co., Applied Mechanics, New Paradise (Laboratories), The Berserker Residents, Swim Pony (Performing Arts), and The Bearded Ladies making original work. There’s such a pull to that sort of use of imagination.”

The reverent name-dropper has worked with the South Philly-heavy Berserker Residents and Swim Pony, the latter through the Eastern State Penitentiary-based production of “The Ballad of Joe Hill,” along with local-friendly entities EgoPo Classic Theatre, The Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, and Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St.; Curio Theatre Co.; Hedgerow Theatre; People’s Light; and Shakespeare in Clark Park. While scripted opuses greatly appeal to him, he delights in having opportunities to create from scratch, which counts as one of the many reasons that “The Jaws Project” has become so special for him.

“They’ve had a really admirable willingness to tinker and get at the heart of our story,” DaPonte said of Henderson and Tuomanen, who champion local writers through the Orbiter 3 playwrights producing collective. “This has been so much fun that my next show, where I’m just an actor, is going to be a fascinating experience because the preparation and execution are so different.”

Once “The Jaws Project,” part of the inspiration for which came after his brother’s wedding in Martha’s Vineyard led him to read a book about the filming of “Jaws,” finishes making waves, he will ready himself for his turn as Geoffrey in Commonwealth Classic Theatre Co.’s Drexel University-bound production of “The Lion in Winter” and come the fall, he and the South Philly-rich cast of “Rizzo” will remount the play concerning South Philly native Frank Rizzo through the Philadelphia Theatre Co. Noting that as an actor or actress, one must always face the finality of a job, DaPonte is excited to keep hunting and confronting any barriers to breakthroughs.

“Regardless of the location, this city’s theater possibilities are amazing,” he said, noting his fortune over swimming in the same creative waters with many South Philadelphia-based stage pioneers. “It’s those possibilities that keep compelling us all to try to do better.” ■

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Contact Editor Joseph Myers at jmyers@southphillyreview.com or ext. 124.

Portrait Photo and Playbill by Robert DaPonte