This is arts country

Actor Ben Lloyd (right), who conceived White Pines Productions, talks with Dave Johnson of the troupe Berserker Residents. Bradley Wrenn and Justin Jain cavort in the background. On Saturday, the Berserkers will perform work they created this week.
Actor Ben Lloyd (right), who conceived White Pines Productions, talks with Dave Johnson of the troupe Berserker Residents. Bradley Wrenn and Justin Jain cavort in the background. On Saturday, the Berserkers will perform work they created this week. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

An idealistic actor is drawing performers to do their thing on the former estate of a trolley magnate in Cheltenham. And the results are free to see.

Posted: June 17, 2011

The Philadelphia area's newest program for performing artists exploring ideas is nowhere near a traditional theater. It's on 43 acres of what seems like stage-set countryside - ponds, rolling grounds, mansions - but is really just off busy Old York Road in Cheltenham's Elkins Park neighborhood.

The site for the program, called White Pines Productions, is Elkins Estate, a century ago the majestic holding of William Lukens Elkins, a trolley magnate and philanthropist whose family gave its name to the larger neighborhood. After his fortunes declined, the estate for 75 years housed an order of Dominican nuns, who added on to buildings so they could also open a dormitory-like retirement home.

These are the fertile grounds for the first three ensemble companies in White Pines' residency program. Each has a week of room, board, and space to create, and each week will culminate in . . . who knows what?

It could be a full-blown public performance. It could be an in-progress demonstration of what the artists have been doing. These public grab-bag events - like the workshops, concerts, and other events White Pines is sponsoring through the summer - are free.

White Pines is the brainchild of longtime Philadelphia-based actor Ben Lloyd, who's lately been specializing in comedy - the title role in Moliere's Scapin two seasons back at Lantern Theater, and Bottom in that company's A Midsummer Night's Dream this spring. He established the residency with a $75,000 grant from the Wyncote Foundation, a Haas family philanthropy whose leaders include another local actor, Leonard C. Haas.

When Lloyd, his wife - actress Susan McKey, a longtime member of the People's Light & Theatre Company - and two children moved from Havertown to Elkins Park two years ago, "I began to think of this desire to create an artistic home for myself and also invite other people into it," he says. "What would it be? A conventional theater? Would I find a little storefront in Jenkintown and call it Jenkintown Rep?"

He discussed this with others, and was directed to David Dobson, who had founded the Land Conservancy of Elkins Park to save the Elkins Estate, which the nuns had considered prime land for sale to developers, who would inevitably carve it up.

For Dobson, who runs the estate as an event rental and a retreat for yoga and health and fitness programs, "White Pines is a real good fit for the estate. We were thinking of doing theater, music, art, and dance, with a charter school, and that didn't really pan out. It's a good place for the arts."

Dobson has had his problems with Land Conservancy financing, and this spring, several dozen couples canceled wedding plans there, sometimes at a financial loss, when the conservancy declared bankruptcy in order to reorganize. Weddings never stopped, though, and continue to be booked, and Dobson says he expects a package for third-party financing, including paying back all the couples who lost deposits, to be approved in court within the next six weeks.

Through the turmoil, Lloyd kept on planning for his new artists' program, choosing three groups from among 44 across the country that had applied. Not many special programs exist just for ensembles, Lloyd says - groups of theater artists that create and perform their own work as a team and without a more conventional hierarchy of directors and designers; in Philadelphia, Pig Iron Theatre Company is a prime example.

The first White Pines residency went to the Philadelphia-based Berserker Residents, whose young actors created, produced, and performed The Giant Squid, The Annihilation Point and other dark-horse hits of Live Arts/Philly Fringe festivals in recent years. The troupe has been creating work at Elkins Estate this week, and is set for a public performance at 7 p.m. Saturday.

The Berserkers are creating a piece for an Off-Broadway commission next season. Normally, says troupe member Bradley K. Wrenn, "we rehearse between 10 and 15 hours a week because we're finding the time between day jobs. Now, we're . . . able to sit down together and have a week of 9-to-5. That's so rare."

Next up at the estate, in July, will be Dzieci, a Brooklyn troupe that uses theater techniques from Poland and different ritual forms. After that, Philadelphia's Green Chair Dance Group takes over in August for its week.

The residency program has given Lloyd, 48 - a Yale University drama grad whose mother was a dancer with Merce Cunningham and whose father was an arts administrator and served on the New York State Council for the Arts - a chance to explore some ideas himself.

He has explored theater and performance theory all his adult life, sometimes at the edges. He says thinking about the arts in different ways is in his family tradition. (The recipient of several glowing reviews in his career, Lloyd once suggested that theater critics should attempt doing their jobs without making any judgments whatsoever.) His 2006 epistolary novel, The Actor's Way, concerns a young actor who believes that his artistry is dominated by market values, that he's a commodity waiting to be sold.

That's a theme Lloyd is working on this summer - to move performers into "a paradigm based more in, for lack of a better term, a gift economy, in which artists and performances are not thought of as commodities to be sold but as gifts to be given and exchanged."

How that could work - anything from an exchange of services to an audience's contribution of food or gifts to a model yet undiscovered - is the theme of a White Pines workshop at the estate. So is an exploration of performance using the model of a Quaker meeting, a reflection of Lloyd's spiritual tradition.

"Being an actor and a Quaker, I can say from my own experience that the moments I have had on stage at the Wilma or at Lantern that have felt extraordinary to me - when you walk off stage and say, 'Wow! That was special!' - that's the same feeling I've had after I've stood and led ministry that is spirit-led."

Lloyd calls that program "Creative Worship" and plans for its culmination at Elkins Estate on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this year.

Artistry at Elkins Estate

White Pines Production is a new residency program for ensembles, which will create and perform there, and for classes and workshops. The estate is at 1750 Ashbourne Rd., Elkins Park. All events are free and open to the public. Information: 610-864-0317 or

Ensemble performances. The Berserker Residents perform at 7 p.m. Saturday; Dzeici explores a Nordic saga at 7 p.m. Aug. 1; Green Chair Dance Group performs at 7 p.m. Aug. 15.

Classes, workshops. The Creative Commons meets from 7 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Aug. 15 to work on projects, demonstrate techniques, and seek help for works in progress. Creative Worship, convened as a Quaker meeting with a concern for performance, meets at 7 p.m. July 12, Aug. 11 and Sept. 11.

New-play readings. Antarktikos, by Oregon playwright Andrea Stolowitz, at 7 p.m. Friday. Every Wednesday night at 7 through Aug. 10, Philadelphia professional actors will read a new play.

New music. The George Weldon Jazz Trio plays at 6 p.m. Tuesdays throughout the summer. White Pines is booking other acts. Consult the website for updates.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,


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