Pa. grant aids Walnut Street Theatre's expansion plan The theater is about to start a campaign to build a second performance space next to the original.

Posted: November 21, 2002

With a $5 million grant from the state and a purchase agreement on a parking lot next door, the Walnut Street Theatre is poised to launch a campaign to build a 300-to-350-seat theater adjacent to its historic building at Ninth and Walnut Streets.

Bernard Havard, the Walnut's producing artistic director, said the state grant - part of $43 million that Gov. Schweiker awarded to area cultural groups Tuesday - was a major initial step toward the construction of a second performance space.

He said the theater expected to own the parking lot by the end of the year, but would not estimate when construction might begin. "We have a long way to go," he said, noting that the project would cost at least $30 million - $40 million if the entire plan were realized - and that fund-raising was just getting under way.

The Walnut Street Theatre, which opened in 1809, is the oldest continuously operating theater building in the United States. The Walnut Street Theatre company was established in 1982 with Havard at the helm. By staging musicals and popular comedies in the 1,000-seat main stage, he has developed a subscriber base of more than 50,000, making the Walnut not only the largest producing theater in this area, but the largest subscriber-based regional theater in the country.

"Space has been one of our major challenges," Havard said. "Our audience on the main stage is maxed out. Our studio program is maxed out. Our theater school is maxed out, and we have no room to grow. Our destiny lies toward the east," he said, alluding to the parking-lot building site.

Havard envisions the much smaller new theater as having an octagonally shaped stage surrounded by seating. He described the programming planned for it - which would replace the series the Walnut currently runs in its 80-seat, third-floor studio space - as "small musicals, work that's highly imaginative, Shakespeare, and a much wider range of children's programs."

The upper floors of the new building would contain rehearsal space and apartments for out-of-town Walnut actors, whom the theater now houses at an annual cost of $400,000. Havard also would like to buy the parking lot adjacent to the one the theater is buying. On that plot, he said, the theater could build a parking garage with a restaurant on the ground floor, a plan that would raise the cost of the project by $10 million, but provide extra revenue from parking fees.

Havard said a new theater has been part of the theater's master plan since at least 1990. In 1995, Havard briefly expressed interest in purchasing Plays & Players Theatre on Delancey Street, and a couple of years later he tried to acquire a 19th-century bank building at Seventh and Walnut Streets as the site for a theater much like the one planned now.

In the 1970s, Havard built new performing spaces when he headed theaters in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta. "Hopefully, this will be my third," he said.

Contact Douglas J. Keating at 215-854-5609 or dkeating@phillynews.com.

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