By Ned Warwick, Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia
An avid Philadelphia theatre-goer recently took to the Philly Theatre Casting Couch primed with a message for those who rarely attend: ‘take a chance’ and come see live drama. ‘It’s life, that’s the whole thing,” said Roger LaMay, the general manager of radio station WXPN, when he sat down on the Philly Theatre Casting Couch – Philadelphia theatre’s traveling talk show featuring everyday folks sharing their passion for theatre. “You just don’t know what you are going to get.” And that, for him, is the magic and the lure of theatre.
What became obvious in listening to LaMay and to others who we talked to on the Philly Theatre Casting Couch, is how much Philadelphia’s reputation for offering a diverse range of theatre has grown in recent years. He pointed out the pleasure he had taken in seeing in quick succession last season the dark and edgy Lieutenant of Inishmore, by Theatre Exile and what he called “the sweet little play” My Beautiful Day, put on by the Wilma. Both productions were up for Barrymore Awards in several categories.
Philadelphia has a rare range of theatres, La May said, “And all seem to have their own kind of niche.” And for someone like me, focusing seriously on theatre for the first time, that array can be exhilarating. I was put in mind of what the literary critic James Wood said of fiction and how easily those words can also be applied to the range of possibilities that theatre so heartily invites. “The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wiggles out of the rules thrown around it.” That says it in spades for theatre as well.
During this intensely active time in the theatre calendar, with the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe everywhere across the city, the theatre season just getting underway and with all the buzz surrounding the Barrymore Awards, I have the same wondering sense of theatre’s infinite possibility. I hear it in the excitement and sense of adventure of those who speak of their love for theatre on the Philly Theatre Casting Couch and I have witnessed it in the remarkable way that theatre in recent weeks has with a lack of frozen reverence reimagined or reworked Shakespeare to serve new ends.
At the festival’s Lady M, we watched Macbeth retold through the eyes of a demented, blood-lusting Lady Macbeth and a beefed up gang of witches; we held on for the wild ride of Pig Iron Production’s mad cap Twelfth Night , unfolding to the accompaniment of a live Balkan band. But the show stopper may have been 11th Hour Theatre’s ribald, adrenalin-charged, rap-spewing The Bomb-itty of Errors with proper though guffawing bows to the original The Comedy of Errors.
And then there was the festival’s The Method Gun, a play within a play where over-dedicated actors struggle to bring forth Tennessee Williams’ Street Car Named Desire, minus the roles of Stanley, Stella Blanche and Mitch. Quickly, I have learned that good theatre-going requires not only a yen for exploration but a willingness, indeed, an eagerness to check preconceptions at the door.
Around the city during the festival you could hear people comparing notes: What have you seen? What did you like? All of them seemingly spurred on by the pleasure of discovery as expressed by one couple at a Kensington arts building that yelped and stamped their feet after seeing a dreamy gem with a big title: Paris Wheels and Ready-Maids Present…Not the Henri Rousseau that Some of You Know…
On the Philly Theatre Casting Couch, what we also heard more than once was how that variety and originality give local theatre an electricity and a constant and invigorating sense of renewal. And, as Roger LaMay said, the payoff for those who go to these different offerings is that finally “it makes you a more interesting person.”
The Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia strengthens and leads the region’s richly diverse theatre community by engaging new audiences for the theatre while advancing the capacity of our members to extend the impact of their work.