When it comes to the arts in her home state, Maddie Orton can sum up how she feels in four words: “New Jersey is cool.”
“There’s so much going here, it’s insane,” says Orton, arts correspondent for NJTV News with Mary Alice Williams and host of The Arts Project with Maddie Orton, a monthly series focused on visual and performing arts around the state. “My life goal is that people will check what’s happening in their backyard first before hopping a train to New York or Philadelphia.”
The South Brunswick resident has been well versed in the creative output of the state since her days at Rutgers, where she majored in theater and American studies. A series of college internships, including two summers at the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, gave her a sense of the breadth of arts organizations across the state.
“All the way down to Cape May and all the way up to Sussex – it’s choirs, orchestras, jazz bands, visual artists, folk artists, apprentices,” says Orton, who lights up when she speaks about the arts. “I cataloged all this information in my head, so by the end of college, I had an encyclopedic knowledge of these organizations.”
All of that inventory has served her well, in positions at the New Brunswick Cultural Center and the statewide arts advocacy organization ArtPride NJ, and in her current television gig – a career transition that came with challenges.
“I had no experience in journalism, really,” says Orton, laughing as she recalls her unfamiliarity with television production terms such as “chyrons” and “lower thirds.” “The learning curve was tremendous.”
But producers liked that her theater background taught her how to be comfortable in front of people and that she had a firm grasp of her subject matter. Orton joined NJTV, a PBS member network, in early 2013, and has covered everything from a graffiti festival in Trenton to the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May to a paper-art exhibit at the Morris Museum in Morristown.
“I really sponge all this stuff up because I just love it,” Orton says, smiling widely. “My job lets me learn things that I might not come across otherwise,” including miming with Bill Bowers, a Mason Gross School of the Arts alum, and fine-art appraisal with Rago Auctions, based in Lambertville.
Orton is sometimes surprised at how her career has so well embodied her two college majors, which took her love of acting and made room for politics, literature, film and history. Back then, in the midst of the economic downturn in 2008, Orton worried about the practicality of her theater degree, but she forged ahead and graduated a year later. It turns out that training has come in handy throughout her career.
“The things you learn in acting class – moment-to-moment work, being in the present, and being able to take risks and to build off of other people’s ideas – is all so helpful in the workplace,” Orton says.
Orton found that the BA theater program at Mason Gross, under the direction of Marshall Jones III, gave her access to a wide range of subjects including acting, production, costuming, set design, finance and development, and management.
She cites Jones as an “incredible mentor” whom she has stayed in close touch with since graduation.
Jones says he is proud of his former student and the way she promotes the arts through her work.
“Maddie is very politically active, and she wholeheartedly believes in advocating for the arts,” Jones says. “It’s wonderful to see her utilize her role at NJTV in that way – her belief in the arts really comes through.”
Orton’s enthusiasm and willingness to throw herself into whatever subject she’s covering is evident in her broadcasts, whether she’s learning stage combat with Broadway fight director (and Mason Gross alum) Rick Sordelet of Montclair or interviewing Tony-winning actor and dancer Bebe Neuwirth of Princeton.
“That is not an act,” Jones says. “That is her. Maddie is just so upbeat and positive.”
Now, the self-described “total Jersey girl” is on a mission to uncover the next “super-cool thing” happening in towns across the Garden State.
“The possibility of finding that person who’s going to be the next big person – this is where you do that,” Orton says. “You could go to New York City to see the person that’s been prepackaged by marketing people, or you can go to a local New Jersey venue and see that person before they blow up. This is the place to do it.”