Oddball theater on the rise in Philadelphia region

Emma Gibson (standing) fills Society Hill Playhouse with her "A Play, a Pint and a Pie" series. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Emma Gibson (standing) fills Society Hill Playhouse with her "A Play, a Pint and a Pie" series. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer (Emma Gibson)
Posted: March 30, 2012

In Mount Holly, the 10-person audience sits around a séance table. In Society Hill, folks with beers and slices of pizza look on at dinnertime as little one-acts unfold.

At a restaurant on Front Street, the crowd - mostly under 35 - drinks, plays games, and watches as actors spin skits about the bar scene. In a Center City townhouse, actors launch Strindberg's Miss Julie in the living room, and maybe partly in the kitchen.

Call it oddball theater, or fringe or cutting edge or outré. Whatever you call it, nontraditional theater is turning up regularly in Philadelphia and environs. It has no season tickets or ushers or mass marketing. And although the shows generally pay their actors and designers, they're largely the work of theater artists either aiming for one of the region's 51 main-stage companies or committed to working on the margins.

Philadelphians who go to the theater are used to unusual productions, and to new ones, too. About a fourth of the more than 150 professional productions staged here annually are world premieres, often by local playwrights. Some have legs, moving to new productions in other cities after first playing here.

Plus, this is one of the nation's first cities to inaugurate a fringe festival, built in large part on unusual work. The 16-day Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe is in its 16th year, a solid part of the city's arts psyche each September.

Many theater artists doing unusual work acknowledge that they owe much of their audience to the festival; the Fringe has year by year built a thirst for the weird, inspiring a complaint from ticket-holders: "Why do we have shows like this only a few weeks a year?"

Well, we don't - not anymore. Pig Iron and New Paradise Laboratories, locally based companies that perform groundbreaking theater around the country, produce shows here, often in the festival but also on their own in the city. The companies have spawned artists who now work in Philadelphia on their own unusual projects.

The Live Arts/Fringe organization itself is a part of that expansion. Its monthly salon called Scratch Night - "Live art from scratch" is the series subtitle - invites audiences into the artistic process by presenting artists testing new ideas and seeking candid feedback.

The program - free, informal, beer-inclusive at the festival's Arts Lab in Northern Liberties - draws audiences eager to be part of the process. "These are really great nights for this reason: The work isn't complete without an audience's opinion," says Nick Stuccio, head of the festival. "What we're saying is, here's a piece and we want to get your perception of. It's a lovely night with audiences and artists really getting to the heart of something."

You could call the work at Scratch Night a high-level risk - yes, the ideas in play are not fully realized, but they often involve established artists whose track records give them credibility; people want in on their experiments. Elsewhere, however, there's nontraditional theater that has been rehearsed, reworked, and staged by producers who believe it's ready for audiences who may like oddity.

Take Miss Lilly's Seance Parlor. Its creator-producer, Tom Greenfield, emphasizes to audiences in the old Mount Holly house where it is staged that the experience is thoroughly scripted and is by no means trying to call up the dead. Still, those emerging from the show one recent night seemed delighted - "very unusual," "fun!" - with the sort of séance-parlor scene popular in the early 1900s.

"It's a crazy little experiment I put together," says Greenfield, 51, a former production designer for ABC television. "I call it my midlife crisis." If so, it was a crisis that called on his design talents; he refurbished an old house to look ghostly inside, installing all the necessary creaks and special effects.

Another show recalling the old days is Magic Burlesque, which runs the first Saturday of every month at the 50-seater called Grasso's Magic Theatre, on Callowhill Street near Front, at the edge of Center City. It's generally staffed by three female dancers and a musician, and has become popular enough over the last few months for Joseph A. Grasso, owner of the theater, to add a second show on the days it plays.

Magic Burlesque changes month to month. "These girls dance and sing probably 10 songs, every one in a different costume, just like in the vaudeville days," says Grasso. "It's clean burlesque with sexy costumes. There's a song and then a magic trick, back and forth."

The audience demographics for shows such as these is as varied as the shows themselves. A Play, a Pint and a Pie - a series of weekday, after-work one-acts whose $15 ticket price includes a beer and a slice of pizza - draws theatergoers who also attend main-stage performances, and who range in age from 21 to Medicare. The series, which ended its second season this week, generally filled the Red Room at Society Hill Playhouse on Eighth Street in Center City.

It's run by Emma Gibson, artistic director of Tiny Dynamite Productions, a local company that presents the work of contemporary British playwrights. A Play, a Pint and a Pie is, in fact, a knock-off of a successful British series of informal productions, and Gibson says she's now sharing scripts and ideas with the British operation.

Some of the city's unusual theater comes from collaborations. The Painted Bride Art Center, on Vine Street, granted an 18-month residency to New York-based theater and movement artist Ain Gordon and Philadelphia filmmaker Nadine Patterson to create a new piece of theater involving a real but never-told story of an everyday place in the city. Gordon, who had done a similar piece called In This Place in Lexington, Ky., presented that show at the Bride earlier this month.

Likewise, a New York company called the Riot Group joined with Drexel's theater program for The Poet Laureate of Capitalism - an avant-garde play that explored money, friendship, and art. It ran here earlier this month over four days, then went on to several performances for invited audiences Off-Broadway.

Some of the nontraditional productions are clearly goofs, while others aim higher. One of the former is Bye Bye Liver, which draws young audiences on Saturday nights to Downey's Restaurant, at Front and South Streets, where they sit in a second-floor playing area to watch a small cast perform bar-scene skits such as "The One Girl You Should Never Ever Serve Liquor To." Philadelphia is the latest venue for Bye Bye Liver, which began in Chicago in 2006, has spread to other cities, and would work well in college dorms if the drinking age were lower.

On the other end of the spectrum is Miss Julie, August Strindberg's 1888 tale of power and social class set on a Swedish estate. But in the production by In Version Theatre, a small new company, it will unfold during the first week of May in a Center City townhouse whose location is currently under wraps.

"We'll probably leave the homeowner's chairs in the angle they're in, and as we add chairs we won't be creating rows or anything like that," says artistic director Will Steinberger, whose day job is at the Wilma Theater as an artistic assistant.

Steinberger says he's "really excited" about the possibilities - and like all arts managers in theaters traditional or not, he's looking for maximum ticket sales. "It's a beautiful home, and even before adding seats it sits 25. We'd like to add to make it 50. We are still figuring it out."

Contact Howard Shapiro

at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com,

or #philastage on Twitter.

Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

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