Surprise: There's good theater in the Philly suburbs

Kristin McLaughlin Mitchell of the Resident Theater Company is bringing her Broadway-scale ambition to productions at West Chester’s new Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center.

The term “regional theater” used to summon up images of provincial stages offering sleepy, safe fare in decaying surroundings.

Not anymore.

In a striking development for the Philadelphia region, regional theater is coming to mean A-list actors, challenging dramas, and Center City-style ambition.

The ongoing 2017-18 season has been studded with bold experiment:

Camera icon Mark Garvin
Dule Hill as Nat “King” Cole in the People’s Light production of “Lights Out”

The 2018-19 season that local companies have just announced raises the bar even higher. The Media Theatre’s ambitious offerings include Sweeney Todd, Julius Caesar, and a brand-new, immersive Wizard of Oz. Bristol Riverside Theatre hosts a world-premiere musical, The Rivals, based on the Sheridan classic, plus the profound, challenging The Christians by Lucas Hnath.

>> READ MORE: Spring Arts Guide 2018

People’s Light offers two world premieres, including Mud Row by in-demand playwright Dominique Morisseau. Theatre Horizon in Norristown has The Laramie Project and more.

And then there’s the Eagle Theatre of Hammonton, N.J. — of all places. This winter, the intrepid theater in “the Blueberry Capital of the World” mounted a 21st-century feat of storytelling for its production of Little Women, employing advanced lighting and sound effects and 17 custom computer-controlled mechanical winches to move walls and rotate stages.

Camera icon Brian Morris
Kimberly Suskind (left) and April Woodall in “Little Women” at the Eagle Theatre, Hammonton, N.J.

Next season, the Eagle delivers the world premiere of Gary by Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham and the Pasek-Paul property Dogfight: The Musical. “We’re looking to redefine what it means to do regional theater,” says Ted Wioncek III, artistic director there.

Far from the cliche of tin-sword Camelots of suburban theater, these venues are going for big talent, diverse fare, and quality, as the McCarter Theatre in Princeton has been doing for years.

“We’re going to entertain you, but we’re also going to wake up your heart, says Erin Reilly, cofounder and artistic director of Theatre Horizon. “In a fun way. With food and drink and free parking. You can’t get that on Netflix.”

Tens of thousands served

Not mere Center City orbitals, these nonprofit suburban theaters are their own heavenly bodies, with their own individual fields of gravity.

People’s Light, with an operating budget of $6.1 million, entertains 60,000-plus yearly. Bristol Riverside Theatre, with a $2.4 million budget, ushers in 45,000. (By comparison, the Arden Theatre in Center City, with an operating budget of $5.5 million, has an annual attendance of 105,000. The mighty Walnut Street Theatre welcomes 350,000 people a year.)

According to Zak Berkman, producing director of People’s Light, “85 percent of our audience comes from a 15-mile radius around the theater, with very little overlap with Center City.” Tessitura, the ticket-tracking software used by regional theaters, indicates that 70 percent of Bristol Riverside Theatre’s audience is from Bucks County, with a good draw from Burlington County across the Delaware River.

Most of the Bucks County Playhouse audience is “within 30 miles of the playhouse,” according to Alex Fraser, the producing director there and another transplant to Philly’s suburban theater scene with strong Broadway cred.

Ed Corsi, producing director of the Eagle, says the Hammonton area is strongly represented in the Eagle audience, along with Shamong and Medford, and the Marlton/Cherry Hill/Mount Laurel area. “And we also have folks who say to us, ‘We have season tickets to the Walnut, the Arden, and the Eagle.’ ”

Audience to venues: ‘Challenge me’

Audience surveys and Tessitura tell the management that these sophisticated suburban playgoers want challenge as well as comfort. “Audiences definitely like what they don’t know,” says the Eagle’s Wioncek.

Theaters leaven the serious stuff with some crowd-pleasers. “Our first show was Spamalot! – because the wives don’t have to beg their husbands to come with them,” Mitchell says. The show’s recent run at Resident Theatre Company sold out every date except Easter Sunday.

Camera icon MORGAN COTTLE
Matt Flocco as Patsy, (left) with Mark Woodard as King Arthur, in Monty Python’s Spamalot at The Resident Theatre Company in West Chester.

The view from Center City is that the burst of new activity in regional theaters is bringing in lots of fresh thinking and innovation, according to Terrence Nolen, producing artistic director at the Arden.

Nolen can walk from his house to the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, and he passes by the Media Theatre all the time. “To have, within half a mile, two professional theater companies, doing different work, with different loyal, unique audiences is remarkable,” he says.

Theater as community catalyst

All over the country — from Park City, Utah, to West Palm Beach, Fla., Albuquerque, N.M., and Portland, Me. — towns and regions are looking to reinvent themselves as arts and entertainment destinations. Same here. The new model is for regional theaters to position themselves as one-stop entertainment centers, for music, theater, dance, comedy, variety acts, and more.

“We see People’s Light becoming a cultural and civic center with theater at its core,” Berkman says. Year-round arts classes, summer theater schools, and community education are in the mix – as are dynamic projects that develop new theater works. (The musical Such Things as Vampires is now sharpening its claws at the theater’s Harmony Labs & New Music incubator, which developed Lights Out. It opens Sept. 20.)

Camera icon Bob Williams
Kristin McLaughlin Mitchell outside the new Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center in West Chester.

In West Chester, RTC is one of eight arts companies at the Uptown, which programs kids’ shows, flamenco, ballet, and stand-up comics like Joe Conklin, and uses artistic partnerships to expand its artistic reach. World Cafe Live has brought in Tom Rush and other acts, and the Curtis Institute has lined up guitarist Jordan Dodson, violinist Wanchi, and, on April 24, the Zorá String Quartet.

At RTC, for community-building purposes, “all of our performances have after-parties, to cultivate the social aspect,” Mitchell says. “Actors stay in host families’ houses. You see them at the local gym, go to dinner with them. We want people to feel this is their company.”

The pizza project

Food and drink can help with that. Bristol Riverside offers patrons a Wine Down Wednesday, a Thirsty Thursday, and a Friday Festival, in which Bristol partners with, say, Itri Wood Fired Pizza Bar to bring appetizers. For The Producers, one eatery fed diners Leo Bloom Burgers, named for the protagonist.

“We’re a main economic driver for the borough,” says interim managing director Melissa Zimmerman. “When we can encourage folks to stay in town a little longer and do a few more things, the whole borough benefits.”

Camera icon MARK GARVIN
Danny Rutigliano (left) and Michael Doherty in “The Producers” at Bristol Riverside Theatre.

For community-mindedness, it would be hard to beat Theatre Horizon. “Over the next decade,” Reilly says, “we’ll evolve into more of a civic institution that can, in divisive times like these, be a bridge-builder.”

Plays there become ways to learn about social issues. With In the Blood, patrons got to talk to the homeless. “People told us,” Reilly says, “that it was transformational.” With Grand Concoursethe topic was hunger. The coming season will continue in that vein, with “locally grown” stories by some of the area’s best theater artists.

Meanwhile, half an hour outside Atlantic City, the Eagle Theatre and its brain trust are, year by year, making an unexpected arts destination of Hammonton.

“We use the words cultural epicenter a lot,” producing director Corsi says. In 2012, the entrepreneurial front-office team invented the New Jersey Fringe, with acts at the theater and venues in town. It blew their minds when 11,000 people came the first year and 22,000 the next.

Now it is, as they say, a thing. “It’s exciting,” says Wioncek, “to get people asking you – in January – ‘Hey, what do you have planned for Fringe this year? We want to make plans.’ ”