This season marks the 25th anniversary of the Arden Theatre Company, which, over the course of the last quarter century, has become not only one of Philadelphia’s most important theater companies, but an influential player in the national theater scene. It’s fair to say that the Arden is probably the only Philadelphia theater that can trace its roots back to Burt Reynolds.
Although ‘70s sex symbol Reynolds is best known for his action-comedy blockbusters, he also owned and operated a theater in Jupiter, Fla. Focused more on light entertainment than high art, the Jupiter Theater hired then-23-year-old Terrence J. Nolen to direct a production of Cole Porter’s classic musical Anything Goes, starring Joyce DeWitt of TV’s hit sitcom Three’s Company. Nolen calls his first professional directing gig a “surreal experience.” He even sat between Reynolds and his then-new bride Loni Anderson on opening night. Retreating to a local saloon during the intermission, Nolen phoned Aaron Posner, his college buddy. Distraught at the idea of a life directing commercial theater, Nolen confided to Posner, “I either got to get out of this fucking business or we have to start a company.”
Nolen returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, where he and Posner met with Bernard Havard, the president and producing artistic director of the Walnut Street Theatre. Eager to help the young directors, Havard offered Nolen and Posner a terrific deal: He would permit their new Arden Theater Company to use the Walnut’s two small upstairs theaters, provide technical production support and the Walnut’s box office for processing tickets, and give the Arden access to the Walnut’s mailing list in exchange for 10 percent of the box-office receipts. Nolen and Posner jumped at the opportunity. From May 1988 to January 1989, the Arden mounted three acclaimed productions in the 70-seat Walnut Street Theatre Studio.
Following a second season at the Walnut, the Arden co-founded the St. Stephen’s Performing Arts Center. Located at 10th and Ludlow streets, the 150-seat theater was among the first collaborations between a performing arts organization and a Center City church. The five seasons at St. Stephen’s were a period of continued growth for the Arden, culminating in the company’s landmark production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd in 1993. Astoundingly creative and remarkably ambitious, the production—which has taken on near-legendary status in Philadelphia theater lore—established the Arden as one of the city’s top theaters.
When the company’s lease at St. Stephen’s expired, the Arden went in search of a new home. For a year they looked at potential locations in every part of the city before purchasing their current space, a 50,000 square-foot building at 40 N. Second St. in Old City in 1995. Following an extensive renovation, the building now houses two flexible stages; together, the two spaces host the Arden’s season of five adult productions and two shows under the auspices of the Arden’s Children’s Theatre.
Founded in 1998, the Children’s Theatre has been a huge success. The company approaches the Children’s Theatre with the same zeal, resources and professionalism as their adult productions. Several of the company’s children’s shows are not only among the Arden’s all-time biggest box-office hits, but in many cases (such as their stunning production of The Boxcar Children) are as artistically ambitious and satisfying as their adult stagings.
“When we started, we really wanted to be a Philadelphia theater,” Nolen says. And while the company does occasionally cast actors from outside the city, the Arden has thrived by embracing a strong sense of community. This sense of kinship has extended to the Philadelphia playwrights who have been championed by the Arden, most notably Michael Hollinger. With two exceptions, all of Hollinger’s full-length works have had their world premiere at the Arden, and, along with local playwright Bruce Graham, another native son, the two are generally considered the city’s finest dramatists, with numerous Barrymore Awards between them to prove it.
Today, the Arden shows no signs of slowing down. With a budget of just under $5 million, the Arden recently purchased the building at 62 N. Second St., which will become the permanent home of the Arden Drama School. The company plans to use the building as classroom space, a craft studio and home to an 80-seat studio, all to develop and stage new plays from the next generation of American playwrights.