A few opening scenes from the 1980s: Two Czech exiles sandblast a brick storefront that will house their edgy, visually rich productions of George Orwell, Albert Camus and Bertolt Brecht. A trio of recent college grads reunites to start a theatre that will tell great stories. An opera singer returns home from France with dreams of a national music theatre festival.From these passionate founding visions sprang the Wilma Theater, the Arden Theatre Company and the Prince Music Theater—now successful mid-size theatres with state-of-the-art downtown venues and growing audiences. They typify today’s burgeoning Philadelphia theatre scene—where no single player reigns artistically supreme, and feisty newcomers keep emerging in the wake of more established institutions.
The Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia now lists nearly 60 area theatres among its members. They range from the behemoth, 54,000-subscription Walnut Street Theatre (“They’re so big they should have their own zip code,” quips Sara Garonzik, producing artistic director of the mid-size Philadelphia Theatre Company) to fledgling experimental groups such as Brat Productions, New Paradise Laboratories and Pig Iron Theatre Company.
The city has its own Shakespeare troupe, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival, and the oldest African-American theatrical institution in the country, Freedom Repertory Theatre, with an elegant new venue in North Philadelphia and Walter Dallas as artistic director [see American Theatre, March ’00]. In Bucks County, along the Delaware River, the Bristol Riverside Theatre attracts blue-collar residents to an eclectic menu of musicals, revivals and new work in what was once a porn-movie house. And in Malvern, the People’s Light & Theatre Company draws on a resident ensemble that has produced some of this region’s top acting talent.
What’s most unusual about Philadelphia is what Garonzik calls “the recent proliferation of the medium-size theatre.” At PTC, which presents contemporary American plays, “we think big,” Garonzik says—despite the theatre’s charmingly decrepit 324-seat home, Plays & Players Theatre, and its relatively modest budget. While the Walnut Street breaks subscription records and mid-size theatres thrive, avant-garde artists insist that they, too, are coming into their own. “It’s sort of been explosive on our level,” says Whit MacLaughlin, artistic director of New Paradise Laboratories, whose annual budget is just $47,000. “A couple of towns have been through this—Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis—but in terms of sheer numbers of new companies, doing stuff around the edges, you just can’t beat what’s going on here. In some ways, it’s a utopia for small companies.”
From Orwell to utopia…Philadelphia is experiencing a theatrical renaissance that may rival its better-known restaurant renaissance. Over the last decade or so, the economic boom, Philadelphia’s affordability relative to other East Coast cities, strong foundation involvement and the four-year-old Philadelphia Fringe Festival have spurred the growth of the performing arts community. This city’s never been a place to tout itself; but the native tendency towards self-deprecation is gradually being replaced by what Garonzik calls a “healthy chauvinism”—at least where theatre is concerned.
“We’re at a high point and getting higher. It’s a tremendously exciting time,” says Seth Rozin, founder of the politically conscious InterAct Theatre Company and chair of the Theatre Alliance, whose six-year-old Barrymore Awards have helped add luster to the scene.
Particularly notable in recent years is the proliferation of new work, thanks in part to support from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Theatre Initiative and the Independence Foundation. Under the aegis of the National New Play Network, InterAct will join forces with the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey to co-produce a national new play festival in June 2002. Homegrown playwrights Michael Hollinger, Tom Gibbons, Bruce Graham and Marian X are among those finding receptive audiences here. Even the relatively staid Walnut is getting into the act, with a world-premiere musical next fall called Camila, based on an Argentine love story.
“The audiences here are perhaps a little more conservative than in some cities,” says Aaron Posner, an Oregon native who was a co-founder of the Arden and is now its resident director. “But they’ve been given enough good solid work over the last several years that they are getting more adventurous with us.”
In the early 1970s, Blanka Vanickova was living in Prague and holding down an odd job as a cleaning woman in a library that housed forbidden books. In her spare time, of course, that’s what she read. She and Jiri Zizka were working with underground theatre groups, but the Communist authorities kept closing them down. In 1976, the young couple decided to flee Czechoslovakia for West Germany, a dangerous undertaking. “We felt anything could be better than what we were experiencing,” says Blanka.
Living in German refugee camps, they married, had a son and decided to come to the United States. They landed in Philadelphia more or less by accident, drawn by Jiri’s film work. “It was a pretty happy choice,” Jiri says now in the Wilma’s offices on the Avenue of the Arts, “although at the time, theatre-wise, it was a disaster. I mean, it was literally a ghost town. We were having a vision of starting a theatre in a town that didn’t appreciate theatre at all.”
The Zizkas latched on to the Wilma Project, founded to give women more work in the theatre. The Wilma’s board included former board members of Andre Gregory’s defunct Theatre of the Living Arts, which had epitomized Philadelphia’s avant-garde tradition. In 1979, the Zizkas presented their own adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm; it was a hit, and in 1981 they assumed control of the theatre.
Wilma shows were always highly theatrical, with what Blanka calls “a very strong visual palette.” It was natural that the couple would gravitate towards Continental fare, to works by Fernando Arrabal, Camus and Brecht, with Jiri sometimes writing the adaptations himself. What was more amazing was that audiences in traditionally stodgy Philadelphia followed them. “We doubled our budget and audience every year,” Jiri says, and the Wilma’s production of Orwell’s 1984 moved to the Kennedy Center in 1986, attracting national attention.
By the early 1980s, the Zizkas were operating out of a storefront on narrow Sansom Street that they had “sandblasted with our own hands,” Blanka says. But the space—which today is home to InterAct and 1812 Productions—was both intimate and limiting. In 1986, the Wilma began planning a spectacular new theatre, the first such venture in the city in 70 years. It opened a decade later to great fanfare.
The Zizkas—who separated in 1990 and have since divorced—remain co-artistic directors of the Wilma and split directing chores between them. “There’s no relation,” jokes Jiri, between the fact “that we separated and then…the Wilma suddenly blossomed.” And though their seasons now tend mostly to highlight English, Canadian and American works, they say they operate much as they always have: putting on plays because they love them.
In recent years, Wilma productions have grown more ambitious. With 7,700 subscribers, the Wilma holds frequent symposia to educate its audience and is commissioning new work from such artists as Michael Weller, Polly Pen and Laurence Klavan. But the theatre’s most stunning achievement to date was probably the East Coast premiere last year of Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love. The Philadelphia Theatre Initiative supplied $80,000 in extra funding, and Blanka devoted herself to the project for six months, overseeing a production that was inventively staged and impeccably acted. “It was a choice that paid off,” says Blanka—in rave reviews, box-office records and five Barrymore Awards.
Philadelphia’s rich 19th-century theatrical tradition helped draw Bernard Havard here. A voracious reader of theatrical biographies, Havard knew that the Booths, the Barrymores, Edwin Forrest and other notable thespians had played the Walnut Street Theatre, which bills itself as the oldest continuously operating theatre in the English-speaking world.
So when a headhunter called Havard, then running Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, about a job at the Walnut, his interest was piqued. Still, his odds of being tapped for the position seemed long. The Walnut Street board had commissioned a study that warned against turning what was then a presenting organization into a producing one, in competition with the venerable Philadelphia Drama Guild, which had been founded as an amateur company in the 1950s and was professionalized in 1971. But that was the only condition under which Havard would come.
Havard, who was born in England and raised in Canada, talked his way into the job—and he has never looked back. Although his own tastes run to the classics, including Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw and Brecht, Havard became a master at pleasing a growing audience that preferred musical revivals and old-fashioned comedies. When surveys showed that 26 percent of ticket-holders failed to show up for Shakespeare, Shakespeare got the axe. Havard says the Walnut’s unions and other costs make it extremely expensive to operate, and he can’t risk half-empty houses. “The economic demands necessitated certain choices,” he says. “Otherwise, you went out of business.”
In the end, the Walnut won the battle with the Drama Guild. While Mary B. Robinson, artistic director of the Drama Guild in the early 1990s, presented a mix of classic and contemporary works that were often well reviewed, subscriptions plummeted. “I think our work was very strong,” says Robinson, who now works as a freelance director and teacher in New York and is still haunted by the Drama Guild’s demise. She notes that the sprawling, acoustically poor Zellerbach Theatre was an uncongenial home. And she may have been outflanked on one side by the Walnut’s populism, and on the other by the more intimate, experimental brand of theatre offered by competitors such as the Wilma and the Arden.
The Drama Guild’s shocking mid-season death in January 1995 left more artistic running room for the mid-size theatres and spurred their astonishing growth. Meanwhile, the Walnut stayed its course. “I say, take care of who you are and what you are, and don’t allow outsiders to try and deter you from your direction,” says Havard.
Today, in addition to 51,000 mainstage subscribers, the Walnut draws 3,000 subscribers to its more adventurous Studio series.
Havard’s latest dream is to open a medium-size theatre of his own, next door to the Walnut. The venture would allow him to produce some of the classic repertory closest to his heart, as well as more musicals and new plays. It would be a theatre in the round, says Havard, where “the emphasis is on the artist, the spoken word, and you give your imagination full rein.”
“I have a contrarian nature,” says Marjorie Samoff, a native who left the city but returned to start what is now the Prince Music Theater. “I’m living here, but I escaped anyway. I’m doing something that has a world view. That was always our dream. Why shouldn’t Philadelphia have a national center that would be a birthplace of new musical theatre?”
A mezzo-soprano with a degree in sociology from Antioch College in Ohio, Samoff lived in France for a decade, publishing articles in French about social psychology and singing with the Opera Comique in Paris. At the Avignon Festival she played the part of the third lady in The Magic Flute.
“The experience of the festival was very influential for me,” says Samoff, who’s sitting at a little silver table in the lobby of the Prince Music Theater on Chestnut Street. “One feels that everyone who matters in the arts is there. There’s a great intensity.”
In 1984, after a stint with the Pennsylvania Opera Theatre (now defunct), Samoff founded the American Music Theater Festival. Its goal was to promote new musical theatre work, as well as to celebrate the legacy of musical theatre, and its reach was wide: opera, jazz, musical comedy and experimental work were all on Samoff’s agenda. “I wanted to be a catalyst for groundbreaking and innovation,” she says.
Over the years, the theatre’s advisory board has included such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Ira Gershwin, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and, of course, Harold Prince. Of more than 80 major productions, 50 or so have been world or American premieres, including such successes as Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins and The Gospel at Colonus.
For most of its existence, Samoff’s theatre has been peripatetic, producing shows in 25 different venues. But the theatre’s identity suffered as a result. Samoff turned down city overtures to use the new regional performing arts center on the Avenue of the Arts (due to open in December) as a venue, and instead rehabbed an old movie theatre nearby. When it debuted, in March 1999, the AMTF triumphantly changed its name to the Prince Music Theater. And Harold Prince himself came to town earlier this season to direct one of three one-acts in 3hree: An Evening of New Musical Comedy.
These days, Samoff frequently co-produces work with Spoleto Festival USA, in Charleston, S.C., and other theatres. “New work,” she says, “needs more than one institution behind it. It’s very hard the first time to get it right.” The Prince, which also hosts film screenings and special events, is now raising money to finish other spaces in its building, and Samoff is planning a full-fledged national music theatre festival in 2003.
“A lot of people, in New York especially, said, ‘Philadelphia won’t support new work,’” Samoff recalls. “I’m not saying it’s easy. But they did support it. And here we are.”
Terrence J. Nolen and Amy Murphy met as kids when they acted in a Delaware County summer theatre program. (She says he ignored her.) Nolen and Aaron Posner became friends their freshman year at Northwestern University where they took theatre classes and talked about someday starting a theatre of their own. But let them tell it:
Nolen: “It seemed like starting a theatre in Chicago was redundant….”
Posner: “…and the mission of adaptation and great stories was something that was very embedded in that community and would be surprising and different here.”
Nolen: “We wanted to come to a place that could embrace a new theatre. It seemed like there was room. I don’t think we were aware of how much potential there was in this region until our first season.”
Murphy: “He had nothing better to do.”
Murphy and Nolen have since married, and the enterprise they started in 1988 as volunteers is one of Philadelphia’s great success stories, with a mainstage and children’s theatre series, 6,600 subscribers and a nearly $3-million budget. In its first season, the Arden presented five shows in the Walnut Street Studio Theatre. Four were adaptations that Nolen and Posner wrote themselves. “It was,” says Nolen, “insane.” But it captured the imagination of the critics and filled a void in the theatre scene. “We were a tiny regional theatre, already on a major regional theatre model,” says Posner. The Arden’s first-year budget was $70,000; by the next year, it had tripled.
Over the years, the Arden has been partial to Shakespeare, Sondheim, Shaw and premieres of works by local playwright Michael Hollinger. In fact, 20 of more than 60 productions have been world premieres, and the theatre’s commitment to local talent is part of its mission. “There was a hunger in this community for opportunities,” Posner says.
In 1995, the Arden renovated a building in the neighborhood known as Old City, eventually opening two theatres. The Arden’s move to Old City helped spur the area’s revitalization. And Old City, with its beguiling mix of galleries and restaurants, helped beget the Philadelphia Fringe Festival [see sidebar], for which the Arden provides one major venue. The festival, which has flourished since 1997 under the guiding hand of Nick Stuccio, has fed the latest trend in Philadelphia theatre—the emergence of small theatres dedicated to experimental or site-specific or heavily pop-cultish work that draws a young, nontraditional audience.
“The Fringe is the burbling up from the bottom, mostly,” says Posner. “It’s not having an impact on the broader scope yet—that’s where it’s headed. But right now it’s the wonderful, fermenting, under-boiling process that is feeding artists, giving them opportunities and creating dynamism in the community.”
Julia M. Klein is a Philadelphia-based cultural reporter and critic.