Philadelphia Theatre Company goes semi-dark for 2017-18 season

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The Philadelphia Theatre Company has resided at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on the Avenue of the Arts since 2007. It has announced it will present no self-produced plays for the 2017-18 season. A variety of special events and speakers will be offered instead.

The Philadelphia Theatre Company, one of the anchors of the Avenue of the Arts, is going on creative hiatus to reinvent itself.

On Wednesday afternoon, PTC announced it will offer no new self-produced plays for the 2017-18 season, concentrating instead on a series of special events and a thorough revamping, rebooting, and reorganization.

In a statement, PTC said that starting in September, the company would offer, instead of the standard season of five self-produced plays, a lineup (no dates yet available) that will include co-productions, “readings of new plays, comedy, speakers, music, and concert-format musicals.”

In a phone interview, E. Gerald Riesenbach, the company’s board chair, said, “It’s a year off from producing to get our house in order.”

Paige Price, who started just weeks ago as PTC’s new producing artistic director, will be helming the transition  year. She succeeds Sara Garonzik, who had been in that job since 1982.

Price brings experience as artistic director and fund-raiser for Theatre Aspen in Colorado, where she boosted revenue by 127 percent. That skill will be needed: PTC not only has an estimated $1 million debt to clear up, but also faces a payment of $1.855 million on a loan from TD Bank sometime around 2020. The company took the loan as part of a deal to buy back the theater in 2015 after briefly losing it to foreclosure.

“I like to break and rebuild without freaking people out,” Price said by phone. “Everything is on the table as we realign the way we operate.” She and Garonzik said that in transition meetings late last year, it became clear PTC needed to change direction.    

Founded in 1974 as the Philadelphia Company, PTC resided at Plays & Players Theater on Delancey Place from 1982-2007, then moved to its present home in the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on South Broad Street. It is a nonprofit, with support coming from ticket sales, foundation grants, and donors.  

In addition to getting a handle on the financial issues, Price will be looking to establish a clear identity to attract both audiences and donors. “A capital drive is going to be in our future,” Price says. “I’ll be doing some intensive R&D.”

She has been immersing herself in the Philadelphia theater community to learn where PTC might fit in. “I’ve spoken to Blanka Zizka [of the Wilma Theater] and Seth Rozin [of InterAct Theatre Company], and I have been out to People’s Light. I am an on-the-ground kind of artistic director. I like to be among the audience and see what rocks their boat.”

Plans for the coming year are, to put it politely, fluid. “We may actually bring in two plays,” Price said, although PTC would not produce them by itself. “I would like to make sure people can see at least one, maybe more, full production next season.”

One play she mentioned is The Originalist, about the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, out of the Arena Stage in Washington.  Another is Small Mouth Sounds out of Ars Nova in New York. “We are looking for collaborations, co-productions, and there will be opportunities for underwriting,” she said. As for the special events, Price said she is looking for “variety, brain candy, relevance.”

She is looking to operate on a tight budget, and to call in all her contacts and resources to create programming. “I’m thinking of the town-hall concept,” Price said, “activating our space for all kinds of things. If people come for speakers, music, Crossfire-style events with opposing views, debates -- great. Maybe have The Moth [a New York City storytelling troupe] come for a storytelling night.”

In negotiations are monologist Mike Daisey, author and diplomat Ken Adelman, and New York Post columnist Michael Riedel. Tony winners Kelli O’Hara, Adam Guettel, and Bebe Neuwirth are also possibilities. In addition, PTC is working with local companies and artists to host a Philly version of the 24-Hour Plays festival that has been popular in cities around the world.

Arts consultant Michael Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, said Price's approach makes good sense: “The organization is saying, ‘Let’s take a step back, see where we fit into the Philadelphia theater scene.’ ” As for the deficit, he said: “It’s definitely not too much of a job to pay it off. It’s a question of focus and how you raise the money. Paige wants to take a little time and say, ‘Let’s think our program through, and be clear on our plans for the future, so that when we go out to raise money, we have a clear and cogent story to tell.’ ”

Who is and will be PTC’s audience? “That’s the million-dollar question,” Price said. “We’re not alone among arts organizations in seeing the entertainment space get more and more competitive, with people choosing to spend time online instead of in an area watching live theater. We have to be more nimble.”

It’s not the first course correction for PTC. Garonzik says that “in the mid-’90s, we did a reset, reorganized, took time off, and came back stronger than ever. So I’m very much in favor of resetting – it’s a great luxury in a field where we have to run to stay in place, with the ground shifting under our feet.”

On Monday, PTC will host a gala in honor of Garonzik and Suzanne Roberts, the theater’s namesake. The gathering will also observe the 10th anniversary of the company’s residence at the Avenue of the Arts address, featuring entertainment by performers in productions over the decade.

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