Let's put on a show:
Philadelphia's best theater companies
In Elaine Stritch's recent one-woman Broadway hit, the 78-year-old actress/raconteur mentioned Philadelphia three times— in each case, as the site of a pre-Broadway tryout show.
That was then. Today Philadelphia has long since ceased to be a tryout town. The past ten-plus years have witnessed a burst of home-grown theater companies— more than 75 in the metropolitan area, according to the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Between 1928 and 1996 not a single major new theater building arose in Philadelphia; since then, five have arisen. This growth in turn has produced a genuine community of actors, drawn here by a combination that few other cities can offer: steady work, affordable living costs and even (at some Actors' Equity houses) that holy grail for actors, health benefits.
"Philadelphia's become a place where you can live and work as an artist," says British actor David Howey, who moved here from London— yes, London— eight years ago. For this blessing we can thank the current happy convergence of several planets: Center City's rebirth, the Avenue of the Arts, a supportive foundation community, and the reflected fame of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. And because no single giant company dominates Philadelphia's theater scene, it's relatively easy for budding Mickey Rooneys and Judy Garlands to find a niche and sustain a troupe fairly quickly.
In fact, the biggest challenge for Philadelphia theatergoers these days lies in sorting out all those local theater companies vying for your attention. One solution is to check out the most consistent winners of the Barrymore Awards— Philadelphia's equivalent of the Tonys— presented each November since 1995 (see www.theatrealliance.org/barrymores). Or you can study the theater critics' year-end "best of theater" columns in the Inquirer, Daily News, City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly. Until then, here's an even more convenient guide: one observer's admittedly subjective thumbnail rundown on a baker's dozen local theater troupes that stand out from the rest.
Wilma Theater. Founded: 1973. Subscribers: 7,500. Annual budget: $3.2 million. Seating capacity: 300.
One of America's most creative and innovative theater companies: Intelligent, daring, thought-provoking plays with an emphasis on new international works. Longtime directors Blanka and Jiri Zizka, refugees from Communist Czechoslovakia, have nurtured avant-garde spirits like Tom Stoppard, Athol Fugard and Eugene Ionesco. State-of-the-art theater, opened in 1997, launched Philly's current theater-building boom. Ahead this year: The Clean House, Raw Boys, Outrage. 265 S. Broad St., 215-546-7824. www.wilmatheater.org
Philadelphia Theatre Co. Founded: 1974. Subscribers: 5,500. Annual budget: $1.8 million. Seating capacity: 324.
Specializes in new works by U.S. playwrights; most are world or local premieres. High production levels; a rare local Actors' Equity company (i.e., it holds actors' auditions in New York). Premiered Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning Master Class (1995); also has offered works by David Rabe, August Wilson, David Mamet, many more. Director Sara Garonzik has been driving force since 1982. Coming this year: The Story; Elegies; Take Me Out. Set to move from its current 92-year-old home into a new house on Broad Street in 2007. Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St., 215.985.1400. www.phillytheatreco.com
Arden Theatre Co. Founded: 1988. Subscribers: 6,760. Annual budget: $3.4 million. Seating capacity: 360 and 175 (two stages).
Best known for adaptations and revivals of popular plays and musicals (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, All My Sons, etc.), some of which work better than others. Also commissions new work, presents an annual Stephen Sondheim musical. Coming in 2005: The Syringa Tree, August Wilson's Fences, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. 40 N. Second St. (between Market and Arch), (215) 922-1122. www.ardentheatre.org
Walnut Street Theatre. Founded: 1983. Subscribers: 50,000. Annual budget: $11 million. Seating capacity: 1,100.
Consistent professional packaging of familiar Broadway hits has generated the world's largest subscriber base, operating in America's oldest continuously-functioning theater building (opened 1809). An Actors' Equity company that produces its own shows, builds its own sets. Its annual mainstage five-play menu includes A Christmas Carol each year. Also coming this year: Cats, Broadway Bound, The Constant Wife, West Side Story. 825 Walnut St. (at 9th), (215) 574-3550. www.wstonline.org
People's Light and Theatre Co. Founded: 1974. Subscribers: 11,265. Annual budget: $4.5 million. Seating capacity: 176 (Steinbright stage), 130 (Mainstage).
One of fewer than ten large-scale resident theater companies left in U.S. (150 paychecks a week). Its eight or nine works annually (presented on two stages) represent a broad mix of premieres, revivals, musicals, etc. Heavy emphasis on education programs, community involvement. Seven-acre complex includes scenery shops, restaurant, banquet space, etc. Coming: Sleeping Beauty: A Comic Panto, A Higher Place in Heaven, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, others. 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, (610) 644-3500. www.peopleslight.org
Major league specialists
Prince Music Theater. Founded: 1984. Subscribers: 2,500. Annual budget: $5 million. Seating capacity: 450 (mainstage), 130 (black box).
Perhaps America's leading incubator of new musical theater in a variety of forms: opera, musical comedy, musical drama, film. Experimental nature means you take your chances, but productions (in renovated state-of-the-art theater since 1999) are consistently first-rate. Artistic director Marjorie Samoff founded the company as American Music Theater Festival. Coming: Chasing Nicolette, Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle, Einstein's Dreams, The Randy Newman Project. 1412 Chestnut St., (215) 972-1000. www.princemusictheater.org
New Freedom Theatre. Founded: 1966 Subscribers: 900. Annual budget: $2.4 million. Seating capacity: 299.
Major venue for African-American issues; cultivated works by Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, LeRoi Jones, many more. Also operates school and traveling production company. Nationally-acclaimed director Walter Dallas has been producing artistic director since 1992; new theater opened 2000. Coming season: Black Nativity (presented annually), Moms, Kofifi. 1346 N. Broad St. (at Master St.), (215) 765-2793. www.freedomtheatre.org
Lantern Theater Co. Founded: 1994. Subscribers: 530. Annual budget: $300,000. Seating capacity: 120.
For serious theatergoers only: This company chooses classics, old or new, with emphasis on substance (ideas, language) rather than style. Past examples: Speed-the-Plow, The Bacchae, Copenhagen. Coming this year: Death and the King's Horseman, The Great Divorce, Shakespeare's Much About Nothing, one other to be announced. St. Stephen's Theater, Tenth and Ludlow Sts., (215) 829-9002. www.lanterntheater.org
1812 Productions. Founded: 1998. Subscribers: 420. Annual budget: $420,000. Seating capacity: 106.
Sophisticated comedy is key here: This well-regarded company seeks to entertain and educate audiences by making them laugh. Coming: Always a Lady: A Celebration of Funny Women, Batboy: The Musical, All Wear Bowlers, Recent Tragic Events (by Craig Wright of HBO's "Six Feet Under"). Most productions at Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., 215-592-9560. www.1812productions.org
InterAct Theatre Co. Founded: 1988. Subscribers: 800. Annual budget: $600,000. Seating capacity: 106.
Offers new plays dealing with current socio-political issues (for instance, 6221, which dealt with Philadelphia's 1985 MOVE tragedy). All productions are Philadelphia premieres; some are world premieres by local playwrights. Founded by current director Seth Rozin. Coming this year: Whores, The Beauty Inside, Blue/Orange. Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., (215) 568-8079. www.interacttheatre.org
Mum Puppettheatre. Founded: 1985. Subscribers: 800. Annual budget: $400,000. Seating capacity: 80. "Art that moves": Highly creative, entertaining, intelligent company uses puppets and masked actors interchangeably to create movement-based theater, often without words. Coming this season: The Velveteen Rabbit, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Also children's programs. 115 Arch St., (215) 925-7686. www.mumpuppet.org
Pig Iron Theatre Co. Founded: 1995. Venues vary.
Ambitious, eclectic, avant-garde dance/clown/theater ensemble has created 15 original works, performed in a variety of local spaces as well as Europe and South America. Some works inspired by history and biography, like The Tragedy of Joan of Arc, and James Joyce is Dead and So is Paris. 215-627-1883. www.pigiron.org.
New Paradise Laboratories. Founded 1996. No subscribers. Annual budget: $120,000. Venues vary.
Edgy, innovative, youthful movement theater ensemble characterized by music, sound, energy and playful sexuality. Works (one a year) dealing with pop culture and other subjects, aimed at audiences under age 35, are advanced and constantly reaching out to new possibilities. Founder Whit MacLaughlin won an Obie in New York for The Fab 4 Reach the Pearly Gates. (215) 763-1563. www.paradiselabs.8m.com. â—†