'Theatre Philadelphia': A celebration, then the plot thickens

By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Monday night signaled a turning point for Philadelphia's ever-expanding  theater community in a region with 50-plus professional stage companies, almost  1,000 members of the professional Actors' Equity union, more new theater spaces  under construction, plus audiences with seemingly insatiable appetites for live  stage work.

And Tuesday afternoon will mark a major step down a new road for that  community.

On Monday, 400 people, mostly theater professionals, came together at the  Kimmel Center for what amounted to an ad hoc celebration of their industry's  growth and, in a way, coming of age. They presented some long-established  monetary awards and announced a new one. They honored the memory of one of the  city's modern pioneers in theater arts. They enjoyed entertainment fitted to the  occasion from some of their own.

On Tuesday afternoon, they will come together again at the Arden Theatre  Company, for a town hall-style meeting to decide what's next - how to move  forward as a unified voice for theater, how to support new companies and young  stage artists, and how to fulfill the specific marketing, audience, and  production needs of the region's theaters.

What brought all this on was the decision in the spring by the Theatre  Alliance of Greater Philadelphia to dissolve itself. The alliance, a service  group for the region's theater community, also operated the annual Barrymore  Awards, honoring outstanding work.

Now, the future of the awards - the alliance's most visible project, and one  that boosted careers of recipients and the companies that hire them - is  cloudy.

Monday night's event was called "Theatre Philadelphia: A Celebration," and,  in addition to bringing stage people together as a way of replacing the  red-carpet Barrymore celebration that would have been held this month, it  provided a means for awarding the last of the Barrymores: two cash awards, and a  lifetime achievement award.

The achievement award went posthumously to Jiri Zizka who, with his  then-wife, Blanka - still artistic director of Wilma Theater - took over the  small Wilma in 1979 and staged work that enlarged the notion of theater here for  both audiences and artists. Zizka died of liver failure in January; he was  58.

The Barrymore cash awards - not disclosed last month when the performance and  stage craft awards were announced by e-mail and on the Internet - went to the  actor-director-choreographer Steve Pacek and to Flashpoint Theatre Company.

Pacek won the $10,000 F. Otto Haas Award for an emerging artist. Like many  theater professionals in the city, Pacek, 34, is homegrown (Lansdale) and  visible on several stages here, and has chosen Philadelphia as the place to make  a living in his field. He is a cofounder of the 11th Hour Theatre Company.

The $25,000 Brown Martin Philadelphia Award, which recognizes a theater  company for a production representing "the diverse individual, cultural and  spiritual differences among us," went to Flashpoint Theatre Company, for last  season's Slip/Shot, a new drama about race, family loyalty, and the way  shifting impressions can play into what people call truth. Local playwright  Jacqueline Goldfinger wrote Slip/Shot, and already had won a Barrymore  for outstanding new play among the awards announced last month.

Leaders of the celebration also announced a new, recurring $10,000 award, the  June and Steve Wolfson Award for an outstanding small theater company, to be  presented for the first time in 2013.

What to do about the Barrymores - which over 18 years have been a source of  grumbling about judging procedures even as they've been a source of pride - was  a major point of discussion over the summer, as was what to do about the loss of  the organization that represented Philadelphia-area theater, which produces  upward of 180 professional shows a year.

The Theatre Alliance's board had declared that it did not want to compete for  funding with the theaters it served, and said the region now has such a vibrant  theater community that its mission was fulfilled.

No one can disagree about vibrancy; audiences here display an appetite for  live theater, supporting not just the large pool of professional companies but  also plenty of new work, plus one of the nation's largest festivals of fringe  and experimental theater and a growing number of companies devising all their  own work in group efforts - a relatively new model in the American theater.

The alliance board's reasoning that theater professionals no longer needed a  group to provide general services, run programs that nurture emerging companies,  and market theater in general sounded like hokum to theater artists and artistic  directors. So a group immediately came together to explore whether theater  companies - from the Walnut Street Theatre, which has more than 50,000  subscribers, the most of any theater in the English-speaking world, to the  fledgling but growing all-classics Quintessence Theatre Group - could operate  without moral and practical support from one another.

"We were just trying to talk about what might happen; there were a lot of  questions in the air," says Terrence J. Nolen, producing artistic director of  Arden and one of the eight people who've been part of the discussion since the  alliance folded. "Folks seemed to be galvanized by the idea that, although the  theater community now is vital, an alliance or coalition can be really helpful  for the overall theater ecology," he says.

The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance had stepped in immediately to help  continue some services, among them a website for job announcements and an  Internet list-serve on which theater artists communicate. But the Cultural  Alliance must represent all the arts, which worries some.

"My fear is that the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance is so large, some  smaller theater companies might get lost in the shuffle," said Kevin Glaccum,  who runs one of those, Azuka Theatre, which performs in a new space in Center  City. Glaccum is one of the eight who met to try to chart a course. "With an  organization focused strictly on this discipline, theater, I think more people  will get more service."

So Monday night's celebration is over, and on Tuesday the group, which calls  itself Theatre Philadelphia, will come together at the Arden with scores of  other professionals, signing on to take control of what they hope will be a  unified future.

 


Contact Howard Shapiro  at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or  #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at www.philly.com/howardshapiro.  Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

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