Philadelphia, Here I Come!
M. Scott Mallinger examines the local theater scene, from the Walnut Street Theatre to Daylight Zone to Interact.
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!
Philadelphia Theatre Company at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia
Now entering its 25th year, the Philadelphia Theatre Company is the city's only non-profit professional theater dedicated to producing regional and world premieres of works by contemporary American playwrights. The company has presented over 100 new American plays, including world premiere productions of J.T. Rogers' White People, David Ives' Lives of the Saints, and Terrence McNally's Master Class.
In residence at the historic Plays & Players Theatre in Center City since 1982, Philadelphia Theatre Company was recently named "Theatre Company of the Year" by The Philadelphia Inquirer. The company drew national attention with positive reviews in both the New York Times and American Theatre for its production of White People. PTC is almost always a safe bet for an intelligent and provocative evening's entertainment.
1812 Productions at The Arden Theatre, 40 2nd Street, Philadelphia
Winner of last year's "Best of Philly--Theater in Infancy" award from Philadelphia Magazine, 1812 Productions is bent on laughter. Having offered productions as diverse as David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries, Michael Ogborn's campy musical revue Box Office of the Damned, and The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr, 1812's mission is clearly to challenge people, make them think, and make them laugh. In fact, the company proudly announces in its playbills that it is "dedicated to entertaining, educating and exploring a wide variety of issues through comedy."
It is equally dedicated to supporting the local arts community--specifically, hiring Philadelphia actors, designers and directors. Like many other local theater companies, 1812 offers educational outreach programs, including work at two area high schools and the Widener School for children with disabilities (where co-artistic directors Jen Childs and Peter Pryor write a short play especially for the students to perform each year).
For theatergoers on a budget, 1812 is especially notable. Making a point to keep ticket prices not much higher than one would pay for a movie, the company priced last season's tickets at only $15. But you will see the same high-quality performers at 1812 that you'll see in other regional venues, so don't confuse price tags with quality. This is definitely a group worth checking out.
Arden Theatre, 40 2nd Street, Philadelphia
Located in Old City Philadelphia (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 60 professional productions, including 19 world premieres.
Recent seasons at Arden have included plays by Shakespeare and Shaw as well as musicals by Sondheim and up-and-coming theater composer Jeanine Tesori (Violet). As part of its commitment to fostering the Philadelphia-area artistic community, Arden hires 95 percent of its actors, designers and technicians locally.
Last season, the company launched the Independence Foundation New Play Showcase to formalize and further its efforts to create, develop and produce new American works. Its goal each season is to mount a world-premiere production and to conduct a series of workshops of new works that culminate in public readings. This June, it presented to the public its workshop production of Baby Case, a new musical by Philadelphia native Michael Ogborn about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the media circus surrounding it.
Arden began producing shows in 1988 at the 70-seat Walnut Street Theatre Studios. After its second season, the full-service regional theater co-founded St. Stephen's Performing Arts Center in Center City in order to have a larger venue (150 seats) and a unified location for classes, education programs, administrative offices, and production shops. In 1995, the company purchased its current home, which contains a 175-seat studio theater and a 360-seat mainstage theater. Both theaters are "black box" style, with no permanent stage and flexible seating, so the theatrical environment can be altered for each show. Today, Arden boasts the second-highest attendance among the region's nonprofit producing theaters; approximately 75,000 people attended last season.
Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA
If you didn't know that the Bristol Riverside Theater existed, you'd never guess it. Just a couple of minutes off Interstate 95, north of Philadelphia, hidden on a suburban main street of charming shops and restaurants, a building that once housed X-rated films is now providing quality, provocative theater to residents of Bucks County.
Back in 1984, the Grundy Foundation purchased an old pornographic movie house on the Delaware River and invested over $1 million to transform it into a state-of-the-art theater in the town's riverfront park. Grundy offered the finished theater, which combined the possibilities of a large stage with the intimacy of 300-seat audience capacity, to the Repertory Theatre of Bucks County, a company dedicated to developing new plays and playwrights. And that is how Bristol Riverside Theater, Buck County's first Equity regional theater, was born.
Since 1987, BRT has brought consistently acclaimed productions to Bucks County. Maintaining a long-term commitment to finding and developing new plays, the company has developed such new works as Broadway and country music star Larry Gatlin's musicals Alive and Well (And Livin' in the Land of Dreams) and Texas Flyer; Jules Tasca's Barrymore Award-winning drama The Balkan Women; Mark Medoff's The Majestic Kid; and Garson Kanin's Happy Ending. Nationally renowned theater artists who have supported BRT in various capacities include Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and Kim Hunter.
Bristol Riverside Theater 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.
Daylight Zone at Theater Double, 1619 Walnut Street, Philadelphia
The Daylight Zone theater company was founded in 1990 by current artistic director Gary L. Day to present quality gay theater for both a gay and a mainstream audience. Notable productions have included Peter Shaffer's Equus, Eric Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey and, most recently, Terrence McNally's controversial Corpus Christi. The Zone also presented the premiere of Day's play Behind These Eyes, which won Best Play of the Year honors in 1998 from the East Coast Theatre Conference and is currently in development for a New York run.
Freedom Theatre, 1346 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia
Founded in 1966, Freedom Theatre is Pennsylvania's oldest African-American theater company. Although it affords African-American theater artists opportunities to practice their craft and to tackle shows that deal with topics and themes particularly relevant to their communities, Freedom Theatre also produces mainstream fare, like last season's Desire Under the Elms. Additionally, it offers world premieres, such as the stage version of the film Cooley High--a production embraced by audiences, if not by critics.
Walter Dallas, a nationally acclaimed director, became Freedom's artistic director back in 1992 after the death of the company's founder, John E. Allen. The company has thrived under his stewardship. Dallas created Freedom Rep, the professional performing company of Freedom Theatre, in 1993; since then, Freedom has grown from a small community theater to an award-winning, nationally-recognized regional theater, only the second African-American company to join the prestigious League of Resident Theatres (LORT). The company moved from its former, smallish performance space to a newly built, 299-seat, state-of-the-art home in the historic Edwin Forrest Mansion on February 19, 2000.
Equally impressive is Freedom's commitment to community. The company initiated its Performing Arts Training Program in 1971, and has since provided over 10,000 students from age three to adult with a safe, challenging environment in which to learn acting, dance and vocal arts. Students study traditional or modern performance skills, theory, writing, and aspects of technical production. Master classes are taught by artists-in-residence, and a Rites of Passage program for teens and pre-teens was developed to teach students life skills based on family history, spirituality, community spirit, personal care and etiquette, organizational skills, values, and the arts. Ninety-eight percent of its students graduate from high school (that's 33 percent higher than the City of Philadelphia average) and 85 percent go on to a higher form of education. Many alumni have become professionals, educators, and civic leaders. Of course, the company is also proud that some alumni have remained in the business and have variously joined the Broadway production of The Lion King, the musical group Boyz II Men, and so on.
Interact at The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia
InterAct Theatre Company produces new and contemporary plays that explore the social, political, and cultural issues of today's world. Known for provocative work, ranging from stinging social and political satire to hard-hitting drama, this highly praised company has produced over 28 productions over 12 seasons.
Recipient of many awards for its mainstage productions and innovative educational outreach program, InterAction, the company produces a three-show subscription series annually. Also, in cooperation with the National New Play Network, it offers The Showcase of New Plays, a festival of fully staged readings that identifies promising writers and provides them with intensive development of their scripts in collaboration with professional directors, dramaturgs, and actors. InterAct also presents Writing Aloud, a series of readings of short fiction by regional writers.
Mum Puppettheatre, 115 Arch Street, Philadelphia
Mum Puppettheatre, founded in 1985, is dedicated to introducing, entertaining and educating people of all ages to the art of puppetry and theater. The company uses puppets and masks without dialogue in order to engage the imaginations of its audiences. It has had the rare honor of performing at four national festivals of the Puppeteers of America. It has received numerous awards, including six Barrymores and three citations for excellence from the Union Internationale de la Marionnette--the highest honor a American puppet company can receive!
Mum was founded by performer/designer/director/playwright Robert Smythe, who has written, directed, and performed 12 productions for the company in addition to his collaborations with other Philadelphia theaters such as the Arden (which used his creations this season for Into the Woods). Symthe was the 1998 recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he used to develop the Mum Puppettheatre's world premiere of Séance last season.
With this embarrassment of riches, you wouldn't think that Philadelphia audiences would look any further for entertainment than their homegrown or home-nurtured talent. But we also get our share of the major touring companies, and they're always welcome.
If the show is very big and plans on a long run, chances are you will find it playing at the Forrest Theater, arguably the city's most beautiful but underused venue. The Forrest is the frequent home to mega-musical productions like Les Misérables, Beauty and the Beast, and Miss Saigon--in other words, show that take a while to mount and dismount, and that will guarantee box office. Once the major home of touring companies, the Forrest is now dark for the majority of the year.
The Merriam Theater, formerly the Shubert, is owned by the University of the Arts and is located on the Avenue of the Arts--just a block away from the majestic Academy of Music, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Merriam is rented out by the Theater League of Philadelphia, which brings to the city the bulk of Broadway tours and pre-Broadway tryouts. Last season at the Merriam, audiences saw such hits as Chicago, Titanic, and Jekyll & Hyde.
In Wilmington, Delaware, only a half-hour from Philadelphia, The Playhouse at the Hotel DuPont is also a major destination for national touring companies. Inside this chic and elegant hotel, The Playhouse is a treasure trove of rich theatrical history, proudly displayed on the walls via props, publicity stills, and posters of the famous players who have tread the boards here. Last season, The Playhouse offered the musicals Civil War, Chess, and Company, as well as the comedy Art with Judd Hirsch.
The Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia is one of the local theater scene's greatest assets. A paradigm of cooperation, the Alliance is the only local service organization dedicated to serving all of the area's theater groups by promoting positive awareness of the art form, building audiences and strengthening 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. Many of the city's theater companies couldn't be more different from one another. Some are small and struggle to remain solvent, while others are nationally renowned and manage multi-million dollar budgets; some strive for simple entertainment while others seek to challenge and educate. But each contributes its unique voice to Philadelphia's richly diverse arts community, and the Alliance is there to support them all.
One project of the Alliance is The Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia's first comprehensive theater awards program. This awards ceremony honors the best and brightest in the Greater Philadelphia theater scene, much as the Tony Awards honor Broadway's finest. The premier event in Philadelphia theatre, the Barrymores were created in 1994 to increase positive public and media awareness of the local theater community and to empower artists by recognizing excellence and innovation. Each year, over 100 productions, produced by Philadelphia professional theaters, are reviewed by the Barrymore 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.