Local Theater’s Goal for 2013:
 Defying Gravity

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 2, 2013

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Patti Murin (left) stars as Glinda and Dee Roscoli as Elphaba in this summer’s lengthy run of the Broadway hit, "Wicked."

Photo by Joan Marcus

It’s impossible to say precisely what will happen in Philadelphia theater in 2013; after all, one of the art form’s greatest virtues is its unpredictability. No matter how many times a production has been performed, whenever actors ply their trade in front of an audience, there’s the chance that something unexpected will occur. That said, the big surprise in 2012 was the absence of big surprise. Despite a wretched economy, nearly all of the city’s companies have survived—thanks, in large part, to the support of Philadelphia theatergoers who continue to pack area venues. Still, there are a disturbing number of small companies teetering on the brink of financial collapse due to a decrease in funding from foundations, and many are busy formulating more economically feasible models of theater production to put in place this year.

Several producing and artistic directors in the theater community say the dominant trend for 2013 will be an increase in collaboration between companies on both the local and national level—which isn’t an entirely new development. In the past few years, we’ve already seen an increase in collaborative projects, with one example being the Walnut Street Theatre’s recent production of the musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, which it staged in conjunction with North Carolina Theatre. (The production was directed by NCT’s artistic director Casey Hushion and opened in North Carolina before transferring intact to Philadelphia.) This January, InterAct Theatre Company will co-produce local playwright David Robson’s Assassins with the Ambler, Pa.-based Act II Playhouse, and later this year, Azuka Theatre will produce new work with the Kimmel Center to be performed on the Kimmel’s roof in the recently completed Hamilton Gardens.

The advantages to co-producing a show with another company are numerous. In addition to sharing production costs, in many cases, the actors are guaranteed an extended period of employment, which allows them additional time to develop their characters. If the co-production is a new play—as in the case of Robson’s Assassins—it guarantees that the playwright’s work will live beyond the first production. As a member of the National New Play Network, InterAct has staged a number of “rolling world premieres” in which several companies commit to producing a new play and sharing the world-premiere designation. (According to InterAct artistic director Seth Rozin, the goal of NNPN is to guarantee a new play more than one production.) Other potential benefits of cross-company collaboration include the cross-pollination of ideas and giving audiences the opportunity to experience the work of artists to whom they otherwise may not be exposed. 

James Haskins, the Wilma Theater’s managing director, and artistic director Blanka Zizka recently met with the leaders of five major regional theaters—Hartford Stage, McCarter Theatre, Syracuse Stage, Wooly Mammoth and Writers Theater—to “discuss new models of sharing each other’s work.” The advantages of combining forces, he says, include longer contracts for actors, raising the profile of regional theater across the country and “breaking the assembly-line model of producing theater that has become the norm for most of us.” He emphasized that the Wilma’s discussions with other acclaimed regional theaters are in the early stages and wouldn’t be implemented until 2014, at the earliest. Meanwhile, for the upcoming year, Haskins and others expressed interest in gauging what—if any—impact last year’s demise of the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia would have on the region’s theater community. We already know that the Barrymore Awards have been abandoned for the 2012-13 season, but beyond that, the general consensus is that Theatre Alliance’s absence will not affect the day-to-day operations of local companies.

One program that certainly won’t be impacted is the Kimmel Center’s Broadway Series. Perhaps its most popular and profitable program, the 2013 lineup of shows begins with a visit from Broadway and box-office smash Les Miserables (Jan. 2-13) and later in the season includes a lengthy summer run for Wicked (June 26-Aug. 4) that will undoubtedly make the musical favorite 2013’s biggest box-office hit in Philadelphia.

Despite the popularity of Les Miz, Wicked and other touring productions, the heart of Philadelphia theater remains the city’s nonprofit companies, even with the challenges that lie ahead. Azuka’s producing artistic director Kevin Glaccum pointed to the new performance spaces in the city as a sign of the community’s continued growth. Gregory Scott Campbell, producing artistic director at Luna Theater, which just opened a space of its own, is “very optimistic about the future of theater in Philadelphia,” he says, and Sara Garonzik, producing director at Philadelphia Theatre Company, maintains she “only see[s] us getting stronger in the coming year.” Lantern Theater’s artistic director Charles McMahon embodies that optimism most simply: “The only thing really wrong with Philadelphia Theater right now is that there is too much great work to see.”

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