By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
The Arden Theatre Company, one of Center City’s major stages, will expand into a building three doors from its current space on Second Street, just north of Market, where it will focus on its programs for students and children and install an 80-seat theater and a rehearsal hall.
The $5.8 million expansion into a 22,000-square feet building is “a huge step for the Arden,” said producing artistic director Terrence J. Nolen at the announcement Thursday afternoon, attended by Mayor Nutter and the theater’s supporters.
Nolen made the announcement in the gutted new space, which was actually two buildings when it was constructed in the ’40s after a fire ruined the a previous structure. The two-story building with a full basement had housed several enterprises — most recently a lighting store but before that, an appliance warehouse.
The announcement comes as the theater company nails down the details of its 25th season, beginning in September, a roster of seven plays that include two family productions. The Arden, which has staged 34 new plays and many others since its founding, began in rented space on the small fifth-floor playing area at Walnut Street Theatre, then grew to fit the space called St. Stephen’s Theater on Tenth Street, where Lantern Theater now operates.
Seventeen years ago, the Arden moved into the building it constructed in Old City, where the company continues to thrive. “The Arden is a shining example of the transformational impact that the arts can have on a neighborhood and a city,” Mayor Nutter said Thursday. He cited the company’s “dedication to local actors, teachers, artists and playwrights” and said it is “especially committed to kids in the city.”
The current Arden location has two stages at 40 N. Second St., and will remain the company’s primary performance space, Nolen said. The new space will house the Arden’s theater education programs, which have grown exponentially in the four years since it began, to an enrollment of almost 2,000 students.
Programs for the students, aged three through 18, are now held in any space the Arden can find in its building, where the company often rehearses one show while another is on stage, or has two productions running at once. Students have met for classes and workshops — and in a summer camp — in the green room where actors lounge between scenes, in dressing rooms, even in a vestibule, and at nearby rented spaces. They are taught everything from stage makeup to musical theater to improvisation.
“These kids are what this building is about. This building is an investment in our future — their future,” Nolen said as about 30 students from various Arden projects surrounded him and his wife, Arden managing director Amy L. Murphy, both co-founders of the company.
The new space will be named the Hamilton Family Arts Center, for a $1 million gift philanthropist Dorrance H. “Dodo” Hamilton made. Her son, N. Peter Hamilton, and Lee van de Veldt head the expansion capital campaign, which has raised $3.5 million so far.
That sum includes $500,000 from Arden board members and $1 million from a Pennsylvania grant supported by Gov. Corbett, plus donations from foundations, corporations and people.
The Hamilton Center, which the Arden hopes to open a year from now, will also house space for the company’s new-play development work, particularly a project called The Writers’ Room, a playwright residency program. The space will contain an 80-seat flexible theater and a state-of-the-art shop for building sets and props, now constructed in an alleyway building Second behind the Arden, where it rents space.