Everyone knows that Philadelphia is the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the home of the Liberty Bell, cream cheese, and cheese steaks. But, in the past, the city also had a significant role as a tryout locale for Broadway-bound shows. Today, it is re-emerging as an important theater town where new works and artists are developed.
In addition to hosting a number of touring performance artists and shows, the Greater Philadelphia area is home to more than 70 producing companies. Here is a survey of the scene:
LOCAL THEATER COMPANIES
1812 Productions, performances at The Arden Theatre, 40 2nd Street, Philadelphia
With a mission to entertain, educate, and explore a wide variety of issues through comedy, 1812 Productions is bent on laughter. The company has offered productions as diverse as Mondo Mangia (a cabaret of Italian song and food), Big Time Vaudeville, and Great Northeast.
1812 is equally dedicated to supporting the local arts community through the hiring of Philadelphia actors, designers, and directors. The company is also notable for keeping ticket prices low, intending to reach audiences who normally don't see theater because it's cheaper to see a movie. For more information about 1812 Productions, call 215-592-9560.
Arden Theatre, 40 2nd Street, Philadelphia
Located just blocks from the Liberty Bell and other historic sites, the Arden Theatre Company's mission is "to bring to life the greatest stories by the greatest storytellers of all time." Drawing from various sources--fiction, nonfiction, poetry, music, and drama--the company has mounted 67 professional productions, including 20 world premieres. As part of its commitment to fostering the Philadelphia-area artistic community, the Arden hires 95 percent of its actors, designers, and technicians locally.
The company launched the Independence Foundation New Play Showcase to create, develop, and produce new American theater works. This season, it offered the first full-scale production of Baby Case, a show that the company helped to develop in local workshops.
The Arden contains a 175-seat studio theater and a 360-seat mainstage theater. Both theaters are "black box" style with no permanent stages and flexible seating, so that the theatrical environment can be altered for each production; both spaces are available for rental by other local groups when not in use by the resident company. Shows remaining in the current Arden season are As You Like It (through April 14) and James Joyce's The Dead (May 16-June 16). Tickets may be purchased by calling (215) 922-1122.
Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA
Bucks County, a suburban community minutes north of Philadelphia, is home to the Bristol Riverside Theatre, the area's first Equity regional theater. In addition to performing classic plays and musicals, the theater company is dedicated to developing new works in its 300-seat, state-of-the-art theater--a former porno movie palace!
BRT offers a five-show mainstage subscription series but also serves as a cultural hub for the community with year-round children's theater, concert presentations, and free exhibitions of local visual arts. Finishing out the season on the mainstage is A Little Night Music (May 7-26). The summer musical series will include performances of Let Freedom Sing (June 13-23), Wildhorn, Webber and Weill (July 25-August 4), and Broadway Love Affair (August 15-25). For more information, phone 215-785-0100.
Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, DE
Offering a five to six play subscription series of high quality productions between September and May each year, as well as a wide range of programs for young people, the Delaware Theatre Company is the only producing theater in Delaware and is considered very much a part of the Philadelphia theater scene. Seen here so far this season were Glengarry Glen Ross, Our Town, and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar starring television's Jackee Harry. Currently on view is Stinkin' Rich, a new adaptation of Moliere's The Miser, April 10-28. For tickets, phone 302-594-1100.
Freedom Theatre, 1346 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia
An award-winning, nationally recognized regional theater and performing arts training center founded in 1966, Freedom Theatre is Pennsylvania's oldest Africa-American theater.
Its new performance space, the John E. Allen Theatre (named after the company's late founder), is located in the historic Edwin Forrest Mansion--the northern anchor of the Avenue of the Arts. The theater provides opportunities for African-American artists to practice their craft and to tackle shows that deal with topics and themes particularly relevant to their communities. Under artistic director Walter Dallas, Freedom has become only the second African-American company to join the prestigious League of Resident Theatres (LORT). For more information about its upcoming productions, phone 215-765-2793.
Interact, performances at The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia
Known for offering provocative works ranging from stinging social and political satire to hard-hitting dramas, InterAct Theatre Company presents new and contemporary plays that explore the social, political, and cultural issues of today's world. The company's three-show 2001-2002 subscription series has so far included God's Man in Texas and Jambulu. The final offering of the season is the world premiere of Missing Link by producing artistic director Seth Rozin, running through April 28.
A recipient of many awards for its mainstage productions and its educational outreach program, InterAction, the company also produces The Showcase of New Plays in cooperation with the National New Play Network. The Showcase is a festival of fully staged readings of new plays; it identifies promising writers and provides them with intensive development of their scripts in collaboration with professional directors, dramaturges, and actors. This year's festival will feature 36 staged readings of 18 plays, June 20-23 and June 27-30, including performances by Fountain Theatre (L.A.), Kitchen Dog Theatre (Dallas), Necessary Angel Theatre (Toronto), Passage Theatre (Trenton), People's Light and Theatre Company (Malvern, PA), Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (Madison), PROP Thtr Group (Chicago), Unicorn Theatre (Kansas City), and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Washington, DC). Phone 215-569-9700 for further information about InterAct productions and programming.
Mum Puppettheatre, 115 Arch Street, Philadelphia
Founded in 1985, Mum Puppettheatre uses puppets and masks without dialogue in its productions to engage the imaginations of its audiences. Its members have performed at four National Festival of the Puppeteers of America and the company has received three citations for excellence from the Union Internationale de la Marionnette. This year's six-show series included Equus and Slovenly Peter, among others, and will end with Rocking the Boat, May 15-June 8. For more information or to order tickets, phone 215-925-7686.
Philadelphia Theatre Company, performances at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Theatre Company is the city's only non-profit, professional theater dedicated to regional and world premieres of works by contemporary American playwrights. PTC has presented over 100 new American plays, including such recent world premieres as J.T. Rogers' White People, David Ives' Lives of the Saints, and Terrence McNally's Master Class.
The company's current season offered audiences the local premiere of Dinner With Friends and the world premiere of The Infidel. PTC presents the regional premiere of Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby through April 14 (this is the first time the work has been seen since its Off-Broadway production last year) and the season concludes with the world premiere of Daniel Stern's comedy Barbra's Wedding, May 24-June 23.
In residence at the historic Plays & Players Theatre since 1982, Philadelphia Theatre Company is almost always a safe bet for an intelligent and provocative evening's entertainment. Phone 215-569-9700 for tickets and/or more information.
Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia
The Prince Music Theater was founded in 1984 under the name American Music Theater Festival. It has offered annual seasons of American musical theater works with the mission of nurturing and developing all forms of theater that sing--from musical comedies and dramas to opera and more experimental works.
Housed in a former movie house that has been convereted into a state-of-the-art theater and film center, complete with full flyloft and orchestra pit, the Prince produces new works like this season's Me and Mrs. Jones, a musical comedy featuring pop hits from the 1970s' Philadelphia International record label; the spiritually minded Myths and Hymns by Adam Guettel (April 27-May 19); and Lysistrata (June 15-30), a new musical take on Aristophanes' outrageous sex comedy, starring Tony Award-winner Cherry Jones and featuring the music of Galt MacDermot with lyrics by Matty Selman.
Last year, the company began to celebrate the legacy of the American musical theater with a concert version of St. Louis Woman that sported original choreography and a freshly rewritten book; earlier this season, there was a full-scale revival of the landmark Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin landmark Lady in the Dark starring actress and cabaret chanteuse Andrea Marcovicci. For more information about the Prince, phone 215-569-9700.
Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia
Located in Center City, the Walnut Street Theatre boasts that it is the oldest continuously operating theater in the English-speaking world. The building opened as The New Circus in February 1809, designed to house an equestrian circus. When the popularity of that type of show declined, the interior was redesigned to accommodate theatrical productions. In 1812, Richard Sheridan's The Rivals became the first play to be staged at the venue, which officially changed its name to the Walnut Street Theatre in 1820.
For nearly three decades, starting in the late 1930s, the Walnut was a member of the Shubert Organization. During that time, it was a frequent site of pre-Broadway tryouts, premiering shows like A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando, A Raisin in the Sun with Sidney Poitier, Mister Roberts with Henry Fonda, and Gigi with Audrey Hepburn.
Artistic director Bernard Havard is responsible for having returned the Walnut to its 19th century roots as a producing theater. Today, it offers two five-show subscription series annually; the mainstage season features theatrical chestnuts while the studio series trades in more challenging works. Shows remaining this season include a new adaptation of Great Expectations (through April 28) and the musical Damn Yankees. Next season will include She Loves Me, The Sound of Music, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Evita, and more. Phone 215-574-3550, ext. 4 for further info.
Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia
The Wilma Theater is one of Philadelphia's most prestigious companies. This is due largely to the vision of artistic directors Blanka and Jiri Zizka, whose work has been performed in D.C., at the Public Theater in New York, and in international venues. The Wilma's 300-seat home on the Avenue of the Arts offers up-to-date facilities and the space to produce full-scale musicals like last season's Passion. The theater also provided a lavish, evocative staging for the East Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. This season has thus far embraced Patience, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Yellowman; it will conclude with the Philadelphia premiere of Stoppard's Indian Ink, May 1-June 2. For more information, phone 215-546-7824.
Although touring productions sometimes land at area theaters like the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center or South Jersey's Rowan University, the majority of tours that reach Philadelphia make one of two stops, at the Forrest Theatre or the Merriam Theatre.
The 1,800-seat Forrest renewed its subscription series this year with some of Broadway's biggest hits, including Beauty and the Beast, Contact, and Mamma Mia! Current and upcoming are Saturday Night Fever (April 2-14), Copenhagen (April 23-May 5), Aida (June 11-July 7), Blast! (July 11-28), and Kiss Me, Kate (Sept. 24-Oct. 13). For information, phone 800-472-2272.
The 1,668-seat Merriam, formerly the Schubert Theater, is owned by the University of the Arts and is located just a block away from the majestic Academy of Music, former home of the famous Philadelphia Orchestra. The Merriam is rented out by the Theater League of Philadelphia, which brings to the city a good number of Broadway tours and pre-Broadway tryouts. Shows this season have included the Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof, The Who's Tommy, and The Music Man. Phone 215-732-5446 for info on upcoming productions.
Situated only a half-hour from Philadelphia, in Wilmington, Delaware, The Playhouse at the Hotel DuPont is also a major destination for national touring companies. Inside this chic and elegant hotel, the rich theatrical history of The Playhouse is everywhere in evidence; the walls proudly display props, publicity stills, and posters of the famous players who have trod the boards here. Currently playing is Stones in His Pockets (April 5-14), to be followed by Swing! (May 10-19) and a one-man show starring Jackie Mason (June 5-9). For more information, phone 800-338-0881.
LOCAL THEATRICAL ORGANIZATIONS AND AWARDS
The Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia is an invaluable asset. The only local service organization dedicated to serving all of the area's theater groups, the Alliance works to promote awareness of the art form, build audiences, and strengthen the theater community. The non-profit, member-based organization assists its members (primarily non-profit, professional theaters) by pooling resources, sharing ideas, and creating a unified marketing voice, whether the member is a small, struggling group or a well-off, nationally recognized company.
On May 18, the Alliance will present "Behind the Scenes," a day of theatrical events at urban and suburban theaters including Philadelphia's newest performing arts complex, The Kimmel Center. Over 30 area theaters will be appearing in 20 venues throughout the region, offering backstage tours, workshops in stage combat and mask-making, and improvisational acting classes.
The Alliance also administrates The Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia's answer to the Tonys. Each year, over 100 productions of local professional companies are reviewed by the nominating committee. At the annual awards presentation each October, upwards of 25 awards are presented for excellence in acting, design, choreography, music, education, community service, and lifetime achievement. For more information about "Behind the Scenes," the Barrymore Awards, or the Alliance, check out the website www.theatrealliance.org; you can also purchase discount tickets to area productions through the online link to StageTix.