Change, collaboration abound in Philly theater scene

One of the most highly anticipated secrets in Philly alternative theater circles finally reared its head April 2 when it was officially announced that The Drake Apartments at 1512 Spruce St. would welcome five new tenants — or one huge local theatrical conglomerate — in September: InterAct Theatre Company, Simpatico Theatre, PlayPenn, Azuka Theatre and Inis Nua Theatre.

 

With that, in one swoop, The Drake and its two large stages become Philly’s mini-mall of original theater, mirthful comedy and daring drama.

“Apart from its primary role as a performance venue with an emphasis on new works, The Drake will be a social and artistic hub for the region’s burgeoning ‘new play’ community, a place where playwrights and theater makers come to read, write, discuss, devise, exchange, rehearse and attend new plays,” said InterAct Theatre artistic director Seth Rozin. As the man who instigated The Drake deal and its gathering of theatrical troops, Rozin spoke excitedly of the space’s two theaters — a 128-seat main stage and a 75-80-seat, flexible second stage — each with its own lobby, administrative offices for InterAct and storage space in the basement for all five of its participants. Yet Philly’s new towering inferno of theater is more than just a location and a new start for most of its collaborator/inhabitants.

“We all succeed when everyone succeeds,” said Inis Nua artistic director Tom Reing of the connection between his company’s objective (presenting original Irish theater voices) and his Drake brethren and Simpatico sisters. “We all have unique missions. Supporting each other leads to possible new audiences and that is always good.”

The Drake story started almost two years ago with Rozin’s disappointment regarding the (then-) future of his socio-conscious company at its present location, The Adrienne at 20th and Sansom streets. After 16 seasons of hosting InterAct (among other theatrical companies, including Simpatico Theatre’s women playwrights and PlayPenn’s writer-centric workshops), Rozin claimed the ownership of The Adrienne property might not have been interested in furthering the relationship. So he went shopping.

“When I was alerted to the fact that the University of the Arts was vacating The Drake, we moved swiftly to make a proposal for use to the owner — Forest City Enterprises, based in Cleveland — and in mid-July our proposal was forwarded for lease negotiations,” Rozin said. “We ended up with a 15-year lease and two five-year options, which we signed in February of this year.”

Though Rozin is quick to mention The Drake’s 15-foot ceilings and ample square footage, he fondly recalled InterAct’s tenure at The Adrienne, which still has two shows to go in its current season, April’s “Uncanny Valley” by Thomas Gibbons and May’s “The Three Christs of Manhattan,” penned by Rozin. “We’ve produced 66 plays since moving into The Adrienne, and all but one were performed in the main stage.”

And that one — “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” set in the world of professional wrestling — required one guy to lift another guy over his head.

“If we did that at The Adrienne, the actor on top would have hit his head on a lighting instrument. There’s no question we learned quickly what did and didn’t work in the space, with its 10-foot ceilings and structural pillars.”

InterAct won’t have those problems at The Drake when its deal starts in September with “Grounded.”

Neither will PlayPenn (which has spent its entire history at The Adrienne, in a close relationship with InterAct) or Simpatico’s femme-focused theater project.

Then there is the case of Azuka Theatre and Inis Nua Theatre, who sought permanent roots when each of their companies were dislocated from their joint home base — the Off-Broad Street Consortium and its eponymous theatrical space in the sub-basement of the First Baptist Church at 16th and Sansom streets — in March.

“The First Baptist Church was sold to a congregation called Liberti with whom we began negotiating three months ago,” said Azuka Theatre boss Kevin Glaccum. “But they finally chose to end the negotiations and terminate the lease when we refused to sign a lease with a clause that gave them oversight of our material. When that happened I reached out to Seth because I had heard from a mutual friend that they were negotiating the deal at The Drake and we were clearly in need of a new home.”

Reing agreed with Glaccum’s assessment.

“We had been talking to InterAct and they showed us The Drake. It was exciting to be a part of this developing cultural hub. We wanted to be a part of a center for new work.”

Both Azuka and Inis Nua still had new plays during this current season, and had to depend on the kindness of local theater operators to help them through the rough patch. Inis Nua’s “Penelope” opens this week at the newly reopened Prince Music Theater and Azuka’s “Speech & Debate” opens soon at South Philly’s Theatre Exile home.

“Everyone has been amazingly generous, even moving a few events around in order to make their space available,” Glaccum said. “Gotta love the Philly theater community.”

Reing — like everyone moving to The Drake — is thrilled at the prospects the new Spruce Street space and team will bring.

“Our partnership with Azuka was very successful. My hope is this will be an extension of that. I think we will all work together, and well at that.”