After surviving a dozen or so cliff-hangers, this month's grand opening of Theatre Horizon's smart new theater in Norristown finally seemed about to be stymied by the ultimate deus ex machina - Sandy.
Yet the way events played out, you'd think the theater predicted the storm's arrival and departure better than the National Weather Service.
The scheduled gala opening Saturday and ribbon-cutting Sunday were packed, and wrapped up just before Sandy hit on Monday. And Theatre Horizon will inaugurate the space Friday with the play Pretty Fire just as life settles back to normal.
"Somehow this whole enterprise was meant to be," says Horizon cofounder Erin Reilly. "The community has been so invested in this project finally coming to fruition that I think people were determined to get here no matter what."
Built in a converted Bell Telephone building at 401 DeKalb St. in downtown Norristown, the 123-seat theater had a relatively modest price tag of $1 million. The sum was pieced together from a $375,000 county revitalization grant, $20,000 from the borough of Norristown, and the rest from individual donors united by the belief that the arts may be one key to enlivening this once-thriving factory town and its ethnically diverse population of 34,000.
"The town needed adequate entertainment venues to go along with some of the restaurant openings in the next two months," says city council president Gary Simpson. "This is our second theater. We will be running two playhouses at one time, which is phenomenal for little old Norristown."
At least one person wasn't surprised by Theatre Horizon's luck - its colleagues down DeKalb Street at Iron Age Theatre, which has been producing shows for 17 years and watched Horizon sweep into town four years ago.
"Every time you turned around, they were finding a new way to get money or to secure a space. They've taken very large steps in a short amount of time, in a very difficult economy," said John Doyle, artistic director of Iron Age, which previously shared the Centre Theater, a converted 1850s Odd Fellows lodge, with Horizon.
Reilly admits to having luck, as well as strategic advice from husband Patrick, once marketing director at Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre. But miracles? Nope: "It takes a village."
That village is called Arts Hill, a nexus around DeKalb and East Airy Streets, with imposing architectural monuments, a dramatic topographical incline that overlooks the Schuylkill River, and buildings ripe for chance-taking repurposing.
With the Broadway audience sewn up by Philadelphia's Kimmel Center touring shows and Center City's half-dozen major producing companies, the idea of Arts Hill is to draw from the suburban communities in Montgomery and Bucks Counties, as well as Norristown itself, with an urban experience of ethnic restaurants and pre-King of Prussia Mall architecture that doesn't require a traffic-choked crawl on the Schuylkill Expressway.
"You can come to see something in one of our two theaters every weekend from the second week in September to the first week of July," said Doyle. "The idea is to create what I call 'churn.' "
A SEPTA transportation center sits within blocks of the two theaters - one reason why both companies draw readily from Philadelphia's pool of theater talent, which will be on display in Pretty Fire in the persons of Barrymore Award-winning actress Cathy Simpson and director James Ijames, also a Barrymore winner.
Traditional wisdom suggests that scripts like Pretty Fire, a one-woman play by Charlayne Woodard about her civil rights-era childhood in Albany, N.Y., and Georgia, might not be the expected singing-dancing-celebrate-the-new-theater offering. But that has never been the case in the 12-year history of Horizon, which Reilly cofounded with Matthew Decker and which played in school auditoriums and even bars before settling in Norristown.
"Nowadays there are so many ways for people to escape, from their couch to their computer chair," Reilly says. "Even when times are tough, the need to tell a story inside of you and the need to receive that story is fundamental. That need to give and receive stories persists no matter what's going on the world."
Later in the season something sexier is scheduled, the Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening, which will cost three times as much to mount as a straight play. "But there's something about musical theater that gets at the emotional truth of a story. It cuts right to our hearts in ways that even the greatest poetry cannot," says Reilly. "The times in the theater when I've been most enthralled were while watching musicals."
Born in North Carolina, raised in Upper Merion, and a University of Pennsylvania graduate in anthropology, Reilly, 33, got her theater education during summers spent at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater and Paris' Theatre aux Mains studying French puppetry - one reason her background involves lots of outreach family theater. She worked in numerous area productions, including the Wilma Theater's notable 2008 Eurydice, but curtailed her acting to start a family and concentrate on building Theatre Horizon.
But nothing prepared her for creating a new auditorium. Who could have guessed, for example, that two concrete pillars in the old Bell space would cost $60,000 to remove?
"Then there was the fear that we wouldn't get it open in time and [would have to] have our grand-opening season in another space," she says. "Around July, we were panicked. But we had a great construction manager [Keller & Co.], who built the theater in two months."
"It was just an empty concrete shell two months ago," said city council member Marlon Millner. "It's truly amazing . . . and a testament to the commitment of incredibly gifted people to make Theatre Horizon a possibility."
But this arts effort isn't home free. Iron Age Theatre produces rock shows to keep up momentum between productions. Theatre Horizon, with 260 subscribers, does 15 to 20 performances of each of its season's three main-stage productions, which leaves lots of seats to fill, lots of room for growth.
You have to ask what keeps these people going. "I don't know," Reilly says, her voice suddenly dropping an octave. "Because I'm crazy? I'm lucky to be able to work with these people on an everyday basis. I can't imagine doing any other job.
"Our desire is to be part of a community in which everybody is respected and encouraged to be the best human being they can be. The theater is the outlet through which we can live out those personal values."
Erin Reilly talks about the new theater space at www.philly.com/
Contact David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.