As the site of the Republican National Convention, Philadelphia took on the national spotlight. In true theatrical fashion, even our grass was painted to look fresher and greener than ever! But the Greater Philadelphia area should be known for more than its historic sites and party politics; in addition to hosting a number of touring performance artists and shows, it is the home to more than 70 producing theaters.
Where to begin? Following is a random sampling of the Philadelphia area's big hitters and small-but-mighty players. Whether they are offering a platform to minority groups or emerging voices, challenging us with provocative dramas, or teaching us with humor, each of these groups has made and continues to make an impact on the local theater scene.
Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia
Philadelphia has something that the New York and London theater community can't boast of: the oldest continuously operating theater in the English-speaking world.
The Walnut Street Theatre, located in Center City Philadelphia, has echoed with the sounds of circus, opera, vaudeville, lectures, chamber music, dance, motion pictures and the voice of nearly every great American actor. The building opened as The New Circus in February 1809, designed to house an equestrian circus. When the popularity of equestrian shows declined, the interior was redesigned to accommodate theatrical productions. In 1812, Richard Sheridan's The Rivals became the first play to be staged in the venue, which officially changed its name to the Walnut Street Theatre in 1820. Other Walnut claims to fame include being the first theater to install gas footlights (in 1837) and the first to have an air conditioner (called Mr. Barry's Patent Cool Air Machine). Following the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865, J. Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes Booth) purchased the Walnut as a silent partner with his brother-in-law John Sleeper Clark, and together they led the Walnut through the golden age of American theater--selling it in 1920, just as motion pictures began to draw audiences away.
WST became a part of the Shubert Organization in 1941 and, for nearly three decades, was a frequent site for pre-Broadway tryouts. Shows that premiered here during this time include A Streetcar Named Desire A Raisin in the Sun, Mister Roberts, Gigi (with Audrey Hepburn), and A Man for All Seasons. Helen Hayes, who first appeared at the Walnut in 1927 in What Every Woman Knows, returned to Philadelphia in 1964 to accept a certificate claiming the Walnut a national historic landmark.
The Walnut Street Theatre Corporation purchased and renovated the building in 1969. For more than a decade thereafter, the theater served as a performing arts center. But by the early 1980s, it was once more struggling to survive. After a national search, the theater trustees hired producing artistic director Bernard Havard to return the Walnut to its 19th century roots as a producing theater. Today, the Walnut claims the largest subscription base in the world, with two five-show subscription series. Its mainstage season offers audience-friendly productions that are least likely to offend--usually three musicals, one comedy and one drama. It also presents a studio series in its intimate upstairs space; these productions (less costly for theatergoers, but usually better produced) tackle more challenging and provocative works than those productions found on the mainstage.
Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia
The newest addition to Philadelphia's Avenue of the Arts, the Prince Music Theater is the city's second largest theater company. Founded in 1984 under the name American Music Theater Festival, for the past 16 years it has produced an annual season of American musical theater works with the mission to nurture and develop the art form of all theater that sings--from musical comedies and dramas to opera and experimental works.
Once a wandering festival (using 25 different venues within the city, of varying size and states of technology), the company established its permanent new home in March 1999 when it converted a midtown movie theater into a state-of-the-art musical theater and film center, complete with full fly loft and orchestra pit. (For the inaugural production at its new home, the company chose Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins, which employed such special effects as onstage rain.)
Although this year the Prince began to celebrate the legacy of musical theater with a concert version of St. Louis Woman, its major objective is to support the future of the form. Since its creation, the Prince Music Theater has mounted 86 productions, two-thirds of which were world premieres. More than half of its shows have gone on to productions in New York: three on Broadway (most recently, Band in Berlin), six at Lincoln Center, and many at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as Off-Broadway and not-for-profit theaters in New York and around the country.
Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia
The Wilma Theater is one of Philadelphia's most prestigious and internationally recognized companies, due largely to the vision of artistic directors Blanka and Jiri Zizka. Refugees who fled their homeland of Czechoslovakia after their various performances were discovered and shut down by government censors, the Zizkas became intrigued in 1978 by the innovative work of The Wilma Project, a Philadelphia company that presented renowned theater artists such as Spalding Gray. Blanka began teaching acting at the Wilma and, along with her husband, used students from her class to stage an adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm. The production, which used a dynamic physical style of theater and original music, electrified audiences and revitalized the Wilma's reputation. Its success led the theater's board of directors to designate the Zizkas as artistic leaders of The Wilma Project.
One of their first actions in that capacity was to find a permanent performance space. They found their first home in an old warehouse on Sansom Street, doing much of the work of converting it into a theater themselves. They then renamed their organization The Wilma Theater. But, before long, the Zizkas pushed the boundaries of their small space (literally and figuratively) with challenging works that ranged from new translations of international works such as Josef and Karel Capek's Insect Comedy to bold stagings of classics such as Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape.
By 1986, their work began to find an audience outside of Philadelphia. Peter Sellars of the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center presented the Zizkas' multimedia adaptation of Orwell's 1984 in Washington, D.C.; audiences were so riveted that even a bomb scare in the middle of a performance failed to drive them away. The Kennedy Center presented the Wilma's world premiere production of Incommunicado the following summer, at the same time their co-production of Vaclav Havel's Temptation was seen in New York at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. And, in 1995, their production of Road was presented at the International Theater Festival in the Czech Republic!
Often forced to abandon plays that could not be staged appropriately in the Sansom Street theater, the Zizkas searched for a new home. And they found it. The Wilma Theater moved to its current, 300-seat home on the Avenue of the Arts in 1996. The Zizkas now have state-of-the-art facilities and enough space to produce full-scale musicals like last season's The Tin Pan Alley Rag (this season, they will present Passion, their first Sondheim musical) as well as lavish, evocative stagings of such plays as Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love.