Theater goes to church: 'Lady' opens along with city's newest stage

Before renovation, First Baptist Church at 17th and Sansom. It's the first success in a project called Arts in Sacred Places, matching religious buildings with arts as a funding source.
Before renovation, First Baptist Church at 17th and Sansom. It's the first success in a project called Arts in Sacred Places, matching religious buildings with arts as a funding source.
Posted: November 08, 2011

The city's newest stage officially opens Wednesday night in a Center City space with a high ceiling and 100 new seats. It doesn't even have a name yet. But already it has developed a pedigree.

The theater, on a lower floor of First Baptist Church of Philadelphia at 17th and Sansom Streets, is the first success in a project called Arts in Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based project that will match unused spaces in holy sites with the needs of arts groups looking for room to rehearse, keep offices, perform, exhibit, and even build sets and costumes.

The theater - people are calling it the new theater or Off Broad Street for lack of anything official - opens with Azuka Theatre's Act a Lady, in previews there since Thursday. Azuka is a primary force behind the new space, along with Inis Nua, another company performing there and moving its offices inside the church.

Both are members of a consortium of six Center City theaters called Off Broad Street - companies that are among the smaller of the region's 51 professional theater ensembles, but are becoming more visible and muscular each season. Inis Nua, for example, transferred a show it premiered last season in Philadelphia to Off-Broadway several weeks ago.

Partners for Sacred Places approached the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia - the umbrella organization that serves the area's stage companies - "and the Off Broad Street group felt that this was really a good mix," says Kevin Glaccum, Azuka's artistic director. "We started meeting with them and with the church in the spring. This happened very quickly. The planets really aligned."

As religious organizations with large, often elegantly designed old buildings find that they need less space and more funding sources, the arts become an option. Many performing organizations lack permanent homes and complain that traditional theater spaces are either too expensive or unavailable.

In Philadelphia during the height of the season - November and December and April and May - a frequent lament is "we need more stages"; it's also a mantra as groups look for space to perform around Labor Day during the frantic two weeks of the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe.

Here and in some other cities, the hookup between arts groups and churches is nothing new, despite the apparent paradox in blending the sacred with the profane. For decades now, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church at 10th and Market Streets has rented the rear of its building, the old home of Arden Theatre Company before it built its own, and the current space for Lantern Theater.

Likewise, Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre is a longtime tenant at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion near 21st and Sansom; several companies use a renovated space owned by historic Christ Church in Old City, and Curio Theatre Company is in residence in West Philadelphia's Calvary United Methodist Church, which shares space with one Jewish and three Christian congregations. Across from the Kimmel Center, the Presbyterian Broad Street Ministry has gradually become a site for theater. And across the region, dozens of sanctuaries have been regular hosts to music performances.

"We realize this is not new," says Karen DiLossi, director of Arts in Sacred Places; former head of programs and services at the Theatre Alliance, she was a catalyst for the current match. "What we're trying to do is actively pursue the idea and help your typical arts group that doesn't know where to begin - how do you do it? Do you knock on the church doors, do you ask to meet the pastors?"

DiLossi is now working with a Chicago dance company looking for space in an empty convent, and with a consortium of dance companies investigating possible rehearsal space at Shiloh Baptist Church in South Philadelphia.

Arts in Sacred Places, which launched last year, is a project of a group called Partners for Sacred Places, with offices in Center City. Partners was founded in 1989 by a group of religious, preservation, and philanthropy leaders to help save the country's older religious properties. Since then it has branched out to train congregations to take care of their buildings.

Partners' president, A. Robert Jaeger, a founder of the group, made the initial contact with the Theatre Alliance, and First Baptist jumped aboard, with a rarely used large space.

Azuka has torn down the small stage in the room that's now a theater, built a new one, painted, installed a temporary lighting grid, upgraded electricity, and bought new seats. It already owned risers from former shows at the Latvian Society, off Spring Garden Street, where the company had rented.

Inis Nua also will be performing in the space, and another professional company, Simpatico Theatre Project, will be subletting it this season. There are plans to bring in more theaters from the Off Broad Street consortium next season, but a lease signed with the church last week runs to the end of the theater season next summer. Then the parties will assess the success of the deal.

No one will divulge the rent Off Broad Street is paying to the church; word on the street has it at about $1,000 a week - competitive with other small performance spaces in the city. But the new theater comes with room to grow, for possible scenery and costume shops.

"There's a sense from everybody involved - the church and Off Broad Street," says Azuka's Glaccum, "that we really want this to be the best it can be."


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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