Theater of the risky

"Very young and very talented" 11th Hour is a "hey let's put on a musical!" company grounded in fresh weirdness.

Posted: November 29, 2011

Manna still falls from heaven, if you're good enough to attract it. The three theater artists who founded Center City's 11th Hour Theatre Company have been good enough from the start, and manna has been their reward.

Not that it didn't take a lot of reaching out for Michael Philip O'Brien, 32; his sister, Megan Nicole O'Brien, 29, and Steve Pacek, 33, whose company has carved a niche for producing musicals usually too bizarre or too intimate to be on the general radar, and risky because of it.

On Monday night, 11th Hour opened Adam Gwon's Ordinary Days on the top floor of the Adrienne Theater on Sansom Street, where the O'Briens and Pacek are producing their first three-show season. Ordinary Days is the relatively young company's seventh Philadelphia premiere out of the 11 musicals it has done.

From its beginning - in 2003 with a cabaret and fund-raising concerts, then two years later with its first full staging, of I Sing! - 11th Hour has been patient, choosing carefully and aiming high, for a time doing only one show each season and giving it everything they could.

The result artistically has been clear; the small troupe is seen as an inventive, bold, and thoughtful producer that offers something special and has been recognized with six Barrymore Awards.

That's where the manna comes in.

"I really love these kids," says 11th Hour's board president, Alan Blumenthal, a cofounder and former artistic director of Act II Playhouse in Ambler, and before that an engineer who worked on top-secret projects for the Defense Department. "They have a way of looking at a show, not the traditional way, and trying to find a newness that corresponds with the audience."

Blumenthal is one example of the manna: After an early 11th Hour benefit concert, he called to offer his services.

Likewise, a few weeks ago, at the company's biggest fund-raiser ever ("11/11/11" they called it, to celebrate both the day and their name), major performers from the theatrical community who had never worked with 11th Hour volunteered to perform.  (The event took in just over $30,000 after expenses, equal to about a 10th of the company's annual budget, a tiny spending plan for the work they do.)

Even Joe Calarco, who directs the current Ordinary Days, about a woman who sets off a chain of events after she loses her graduate thesis notes, approached the company about doing, and directing, the show. Calarco, a New Yorker who won a Barrymore Award for his staging of Philadelphia Theatre Company's 2009 The Light in the Piazza, is the first director other than the cofounders to stage an 11th Hour show.

Michael and Megan O'Brien grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, then moved with their family to Hatboro, where they graduated from Hatboro-Horsham High School. Steve Pacek, a Lansdale Catholic High alum, met Michael at Ithaca College.

All three were to some degree theater kids; Michael was a young teenage member of Prince Music Theater's now-defunct kids' Rainbow Company, then worked before and after college in shows at Souderton's Montgomery Theater and five musicals on the Walnut Street Theatre's main stage. There, he received his Actors' Equity card, making him a member of the national professional union.

Steve switched to New York University and went on to live there and in Los Angeles, and got his Equity card Off-Broadway. Megan went to the theater program at the University of the Arts, and assistant-directed at the Walnut, where on Stage 3 she directed The Irish and How They Got That Way in 2008.

The two guys began talking about starting a theater company, but with what? It had to be professional from the beginning, because both were Equity members, meaning they had to be paid union wages. Their parents and the O'Briens' grandparents gave them the original funding, and with that, mostly, 11th Hour was born. The name, from the phrase meaning at the last possible minute, came from a friend who said it also meant a time just before deadline when creativity flows.

The first shows were on the fifth-floor stage of the Walnut, also home to the embryonic Arden, whose founders decades before were similarly young, brash, and ambitious.

"They're very young and very talented," says Bernard Havard, the Walnut's producing artistic director, whose assistant, Kate Galvin, is on the 11th Hour board. "We are blessed with a large community now of very talented theater artists, and over the years we've incubated a lot of theater companies up there on the fifth floor."

Michael O'Brien, in particular, began talking with other theater companies about starting up - everything from artistic issues to nonprofit incorporation. The three founders sought advice from established companies and from James Haskins, now managing director of the Wilma Theater, then head of the umbrella Philadelphia Theatre Alliance, who had sent an encouraging e-mail that still makes them smile.

"Michael has an incredibly engaging personality," says Haskins, "and is a very genuine guy. He was totally committed to making this work."

Thomas Quinn, artistic director of Montgomery Theater - which, like Norristown's professional Theatre Horizon, has coproduced shows with 11th Hour - says "every project they take on sets the bar high - and that's coming out of the youth movement, not most artistic directors, in their 50s or 60s or even 70s."

"A question for me is, can we produce it in a way that we're not going to shortchange it with the budget we have," says Steve Pacek. He and the others are sitting in a tiny dressing room talking about the collaborative way they choose shows - very much of a hey, I have an idea! concept that each time gets reseeded and mowed over until they make a decision on what to produce.

"To me," says Megan, "it's always important that we can do it with some relevance for today. If you do even Little Shop of Horrors, which has been around for years, you can see it's about what people do when they're in desperation." (The company did the show in 2009.)

"The story is definitely the most important thing," says Michael. "And we feel that if we don't have something special to say, then we leave it," Megan adds.

The company's fans expect a different take - a fresh interpretation of characters (Little Shop), to-the-max intimate staging (this year's zany The Bomb-itty of Errors, also a success at Milwaukee Repertory, where they were invited to bring it), or a whole new take (2007's The World Goes 'Round).

In that well-worn show of Kander and Ebb songs, the stage was covered in newspaper. After each number, a performer tacked up an image that gave a new spin to the song: "All That Jazz," for instance, and post-Katrina New Orleans. "New York, New York" was done with a clear post-9/11 feel. And one of Chicago's numbers, the wonderfully self-effacing "Mr. Cellophane," was sung into a video camera by a man who, it became clear, could be a terrorist.

Not everyone liked it. But no one expected it. Steve had pressed to do the show. "I had an idea we could tell it in a contemporary way and honor the songs - and show that they're still relevant today." A good description of 11th Hour's work in general.


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

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