Stage Managed

Despite the recession, new plays are popping up all over the city.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 4 | Posted Mar. 3, 2009

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The Karma Cookie

With the economy in a downward spiral, you might expect theaters to abandon risky work in favor of light, familiar fare with a greater chance of box office success. This isn’t the case in Philly, where the area’s companies have been producing an impressive number of daring new plays.

According to the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, approximately 87 new play events were scheduled by Alliance members for the 2008-’09 Philadelphia-
area season. Of that number, nearly half are world 
premieres. In fact, all 35 of the area’s companies are staging new events. The figure doesn’t include the 22 works staged at the 2008 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, which, according to marketing director Robin Barnes, featured 12 world premieres, five U.S. premieres and five Philadelphia premieres.

Four new plays that debuted in February—dubbed New Play Month by the Theatre Alliance—reflect the current unpredictability of the marketplace. Aaron Posner’s widely hailed My Name Is Asher Lev recently became the top-grossing world premiere at the Arden Theatre Company. And InterAct Theatre Company Artistic Director Seth Rozin reports that The Rant became the sixth-largest-selling show in the organization’s history. (Rozin says five out of six of the company’s best-selling shows were world premieres.) But The Day of the Picnic at People’s Light & Theatre Company and Resurrection at Philadelphia Theatre Company fell victim to the recession and wound up short of their projected goals.

Nevertheless, the theater community continues to take chances. Beginning March 5, 1812 Productions (whose entire season consists of new comedies) is staging the world premiere of Philadelphia playwright P. Seth Bauer’s The Karma Cookie. Part of 1812’s Independence Foundation Series, dedicated to developing new work by local artists, Bauer’s play is an especially risky enterprise. An existential comedy by an unknown playwright, Cookie focuses on two British brothers who use fortune cookies to direct them on a journey of self-discovery. Difficult to define and market, it’s the sort of project that gives a company’s accountant heartburn.

A veteran of 20 world premieres, 1812 Artistic Director Jennifer Childs understands the risks associated with presenting new work in a world where money is tight.

“People have less disposable income and they’re going to be choosier about what they spend that income on,” says Childs. “Our tickets are about $30, which is less than most theaters. However, if you’re talking $60 for a couple plus dinner, parking and a babysitter, that’s an expensive night out, and you want to make sure you’re going to see something that you’ll really enjoy.”

Childs insists that the risk is worth it.

“Part of 1812’s responsibility is to promote new work from local artists,” she says. “We don’t need to do Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s comedies are getting plenty of play at other theaters. I’m more interested in presenting new comedies that experiment with the form.”

Childs isn’t the only artistic director who believes developing new plays is vital. Sara Garonzik, producing artistic director at Philadelphia Theatre Company, calls new plays “an essential part of PTC’s mission.” And like Childs, Garonzik feels a responsibility to foster pioneering new work. “We owe it to our audiences to push the boundaries, engage their intellects and connect them with a larger world beyond our own borders. Producing new work helps to do this.”

Perhaps the most compelling reason for producing new plays is offered by the Theatre Alliance’s executive director Margie Salvante. “All great plays tap into universal themes of human experience, [but] only new plays can help us fully process the immediate circumstances we’re living in.”

The movie industry has seen an increase in audience by producing films that provide an escape from our current economic circumstances. The challenge for local theaters is whether financially beleaguered audiences will embrace new plays that explore reality rather than run from it.

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Comments 1 - 4 of 4
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1. Patricia Konali said... on Mar 5, 2009 at 08:28AM

“Shame on you, J. Cooper Robb. On behalf of creative people in the city of Philadelphia trying to innovate in dark times by taking risk, your assessment of P. Seth Bauer's Karma Cookie project as the 'sort of that gives a company’s accountant heartburn' is a slap in the face and wholly non-supportive to the theatre community and visionaries like Jennifer Childs. Of all the angles you could take, your pessimistic and bleak assessment will no doubt do nothing but hurt the efforts of a company which for over 20 years has done nothing short of crack us all up over and over.
Furthermore, shame on you again for denigrating the work of P. Seth Bauer and dubbing him 'unknown'. Given a little homework on your part, I believe you'd rethink your flip assessment.
I for one am a committed and supportive member of the Philadelphia audience and continue my patronage BECAUSE I want so much for theatre in Philadelphia to thrive. New work is the life blood of the canon. Write something instead to encourage innovation and support the artists who give their time and put themselves out there for the things that really mean something to them: good stories to tell and audience enjoyment.
Jenn Childs is a top-notch Artistic Director and I trust her judgement. She surrounds herself with forward looking, excellent practitioners and has been feeding our city's cultural life for two decades. We need to laugh. 1812 will see to it.
Playwrights, directors, the entirety of 1812 Productions, actors and designers, please pardon J. Cooper Robb. Your committed audience would like to apologize on his behalf. And kids, in schools all around Philly, pay no mind to the nay-sayers. Write, act, innovate and create. We need it now more than ever.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Mar 5, 2009 at 08:41AM

“I agree with the first post. Thanks a lot, dude. I know the director and the sound designer. These guys are trying to make something. Maybe you need to explore reality rather than run from it!”

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3. Also anonymous said... on Mar 7, 2009 at 11:37AM

“Considering that the economy's "downward spiral" happened long after these theaters announced their current seasons, theaters' attitudes to the viability of new work will REALLY be seen as they announce next season. We surely won't see 'big' shows and I don't think we'll see as many world premieres in 2010.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Mar 12, 2009 at 05:39PM

“I find it funny that you mention Sara Garonzik and The Philadelphia theatre Company as part of the Philadelphia Scene. In there years in this city you can count the number of local directors, actors, and designers that they have employed on one hand. Maybe two. They hire everyone from out of the city. It is a disgrace that a company that calls itself after our own city doesn't even support the local theatre artists. Boycott the Philadelphia Theater Company, and go to a local theatre company like 1812 or Theatre Exile instead.”


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