PHILADELPHIA: Seth Rozin, artistic director of InterAct Theatre Company, is having a sleepless week.
It’s mid-January, and the lobby of his building, the highly anticipated Drake Theatre in Philadelphia, is coated in drywall dust and littered with power tools. Construction has taken longer than anticipated and cost more than planned. Technical rehearsals for the world premiere of Kristoffer Diaz’s new play, #therevolution (running Jan. 22–Feb. 14), are underway—complete with rewrites and complicated technical requirements, all while the theatre is still being built. A lot of things accumulated at the Adrienne Theatre, where InterAct produced plays for 18 years, and now no one quite remembers which cardboard box contains what. And if that’s not enough, Rozin’s beloved dog Porgy has died unexpectedly. There is just so much to do, and not enough time to do it.
Seth Rozin is still smiling.
“It’s a roller coaster,” he says, chuckling as he speaks. “It’s been highly educational, and sometimes incredibly disheartening, and sometimes unbelievably challenging. But always exciting. It’s exhilarating. We’ve never lost sight of how important we think this space is going to be for the community.”
The Drake, a former art deco ballroom connected to a historic Philadelphia hotel, is about to be ushered by Rozin into a new phase of development. What was once a chilly concrete shell has been transformed into two full performance spaces—a mainstage as well as a smaller black-box theatre—complete with two lobbies, brand-new bathrooms, green rooms, sound systems, and light grids. The space, managed and leased by InterAct, will be shared by four other small companies: Azuka Theatre, PlayPenn, Inis Nua Theatre Company, and Simpatico Theatre Project. While each partner theatre has its own unique mission, all share a passion and commitment to new plays.
Eventually, the lobby is expected to function as a centralized box office for all five organizations; Rozin also envisions the space as part library, part coffee shop, part makeshift performance venue for new-play readings.
It’s a vision Rozin shares with his staff, his board, and with the larger arts community. The enthusiasm is palpable, evident from talking to just about anyone who has heard of the Drake. Groups of playwrights and actors armed with paintbrushes and scissors eagerly arrive to help however they can. Visitors pause to glance at a wall left unpainted, adorned with a Sharpie mural by artist Aaron Krolikowski, known locally as the “Sketch Book Reporter,” who attends live performances and publishes his sketches of the actors online.
InterAct director of operations Daniel X. Guy, who has been managing the project on the ground for months, speaks with the weariness and pride of a marathon runner: “We’re under the gun. As everyone always says, Construction is going to take longer than you think, it’s going to cost more than you think. It’s…it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. There are just so many priorities. But look: It was a big empty room, and now it’s a viable space for all of us. Our designers and technicians are thrilled to be working here, and love how accessible it is. That’s so important to me.” Then he laughs and adds, “And in February, I am going to go on vacation and turn my phone off for an entire weekend.”
When audiences arrive for the opening night of #therevolution, they will see a brand-new performance venue, located just steps away from the Avenue of the Arts, the Wilma Theater, the Kimmel Center, and the heart of downtown Philadelphia. They might even see beyond the new paint and windows to recognize the Drake as a massive labor of love, and an incredible achievement in fundraising, determination, and organization.
The new play by Diaz, a darkly comic satire of social justice warriors and Internet activism, was not originally slated to be the inaugural production in the new space. (George Brant’s Grounded, which was programmed to go up last fall, has been rescheduled for next season.) Diaz’s #therevolution is filled with technical challenges that would be considerable even for established venues with higher budgets: It requires stage combat, complex video sequences, and a 15-foot monolithic, crumbling wall. But Rozin, who’s directing the play, sees it as an opportunity to showcase the potential of his brand-new facility.
“InterAct is still InterAct,” Rozin says. “We’re not shifting toward mainstream. This is as risky and challenging a show as we’ve done, and I’m proud of that. It reflects a lot of our core values: championing new plays, taking artistic risk, celebrating diversity, and creating dialogue around civic issues.”
Now all that’s left is to finish. A crew of workmen begins to sweep the sawdust into neat piles as actors arrive for rehearsal.
“I’m thrilled,” says Kevin Glaccum, producing artistic director of Azuka Theatre, holding a roll of paper towels as he pitches in to finish the bathrooms. “I’m really excited about the synergy of all these people being in the same place at the same time, both artistically as well as in terms of audience development. Being in this company of creators is going to bring so much to the table, more than each of us could do individually.”
To put it another way, the Drake is a project so large that it’s bigger than any one person or company, and can only be accomplished by many people collaborating together. In other words, the embodiment of theatre.
Katherine Fritz is a writer, costume designer, and theatre artist based in Philadelphia.