By Ned Warwick for the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia
You didn’t have to have the sharpest eye in the theatre to see one of the more interesting demographic features of the recent Barrymore Awards night: the preponderance of young people. Whole bands of them from different nominated plays hooted, hollered and thronged the aisles as the awards for best local theatre were given out at the Walnut Street Theatre, October 3.
So boisterous and energetic was the audience, it moved two award winners from national stage, Anna Deavere Smith and Terrence McNally, to comment admiringly as they came to accept their awards. Indeed, one winner, Michael Doherty, of Theatre Horizon in Norristown, appeared to be shot from a cannon when he heard his name announced, dashing, dancing and shimmying his way to the stage in giddy exaltation over getting Best Supporting Actor in a Musical.
It’s a reminder, also made abundantly clear at a recent appearance of the Philly Theatre Casting Couch on the Penn campus, that it is the young, fueled by passion and only a modest need for creature comforts and security, who give theatre so much of its juice. In a time where theatre has grown exponentially in Philadelphia, it is the young, armed with little more than raw talent and heart that is starting local theatre companies. And the theatre they produce is often daring and original and has a clean-eyed lack of supplication for yesterday’s verities or lessons acquired from the accumulated scar tissue of what didn’t work.
And on the Philly Theatre Casting Couch were a gratifying number of new students who genuinely liked theatre and, more importantly, knew why they liked it. No, they hadn’t heard of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe, nor were they all that sure about Philadelphia’s place in the theatre cosmos – except vaguely they knew it was up there. But what you quickly realized by listening in was that brand new, bright, talented theatre people were pouring into the city as school began and that some satisfying percentage of them would stay on, become part of the next generation, knowing by the traditions already set that this was a town where they could see out their visions, a town where they could find a place for themselves and audiences that would reward their zest and originality. There was theatre major Matt who said he liked to watch and perform in “quick, smart comedies” which he called “a bit of espionage of the mind”; humor, he said, that allows us to take on spiky issues and to open ourselves up to their consideration, the process eased by a good laugh.
And at least two of the guests on the couch captured the goose bumpy notion that what theatre can do is say on stage what it is we are usually otherwise too afraid to say aloud, to force a time out in the rush of our lives to confront what truly is going on here. At one point, the interviewer on the couch was Knight Arts grantee Emma Gibson, a Londoner who moved to Philadelphia and into its fertile cultural soil planted a very Scottish idea of play-giving—“A Play, a Pie, a Pint.” The idea is simple: For $15 you get a slice of pizza, a beer and a one act, one hour play. She and her theatre company Tiny Dynamite are mounting four of these plays, which she calls “brilliantly casual theatre”, in October and November, so far to enthusiastic and often sold out crowds in the Society Hill Playhouse and later Fergie’s Pub in Center City.
Noting that in Scotland all funding comes from ticket sales and the willingness of performers to work for little, she found Philadelphia “an enormously generous community.” It struck me that the “oh wows” of the young sitting on the Philly Theatre Casting Couch, hearing for the first time this concept, that and Tiny Dynamite have got it just about right. They have created another intriguing niche for Philadelphia theatre-making and they had made it accessible to everyone.
The Philly Theatre Casting Couch, supported by an arts challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is part of an audience engagement initiative aimed at doubling the number of theatre goers by 2020. This popular program was first launched by the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia in April of 2010 with appearances of the Philly Theatre Casting Couch throughout Center City. This year it is reaching into other parts of the city and into the suburbs to engage audiences and practitioners from all sectors of the theatre community.