'Theatre Philadelphia: A Celebration' - and then the plot thickens

The cast of Vaclav Havel's "Leaving" in its 2010 U.S. premiere; this was Jiri Zizka's final show with the Wilma. Zizka died in January at 58.
The cast of Vaclav Havel's "Leaving" in its 2010 U.S. premiere; this was Jiri Zizka's final show with the Wilma. Zizka died in January at 58.
Posted: October 24, 2012

Monday night signaled a turning point for Philadelphia's ever-expanding theater community in a region with 50-plus professional stage companies, almost 1,000 members of the professional Actors' Equity union, more new theater spaces under construction, plus audiences with seemingly insatiable appetites for live stage work.

And Tuesday afternoon will mark a major step down a new road for that community.

On Monday, 400 people, mostly theater professionals, came together at the Kimmel Center for what amounted to an ad hoc celebration of their industry's growth and, in a way, coming of age. They presented some long-established monetary awards and announced a new one. They honored the memory of one of the city's modern pioneers in theater arts. They enjoyed entertainment fitted to the occasion from some of their own.

On Tuesday afternoon, they will come together again at the Arden Theatre Company, for a town hall-style meeting to decide what's next - how to move forward as a unified voice for theater, how to support new companies and young stage artists, and how to fulfill the specific marketing, audience, and production needs of the region's theaters.

What brought all this on was the decision in the spring by the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia to dissolve itself. The alliance, a service group for the region's theater community, also operated the annual Barrymore Awards, honoring outstanding work.

Now, the future of the awards - the alliance's most visible project, and one that boosted careers of recipients and the companies that hire them - is cloudy.

Monday night's event was called "Theatre Philadelphia: A Celebration," and, in addition to bringing stage people together as a way of replacing the red-carpet Barrymore celebration that would have been held this month, it provided a means for awarding the last of the Barrymores: two cash awards, and a lifetime achievement award.

The achievement award went posthumously to Jiri Zizka who, with his then-wife, Blanka - still artistic director of Wilma Theater - took over the small Wilma in 1979 and staged work that enlarged the notion of theater here for both audiences and artists. Zizka died of liver failure in January; he was 58.

The Barrymore cash awards - not disclosed last month when the performance and stage craft awards were announced by e-mail and on the Internet - went to the actor-director-choreographer Steve Pacek and to Flashpoint Theatre Company.

Pacek won the $10,000 F. Otto Haas Award for an emerging artist. Like many theater professionals in the city, Pacek, 34, is homegrown (Lansdale) and visible on several stages here, and has chosen Philadelphia as the place to make a living in his field. He is a cofounder of the 11th Hour Theatre Company.

The $25,000 Brown Martin Philadelphia Award, which recognizes a theater company for a production representing "the diverse individual, cultural and spiritual differences among us," went to Flashpoint Theatre Company, for last season's Slip/Shot, a new drama about race, family loyalty, and the way shifting impressions can play into what people call truth. Local playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger wrote Slip/Shot, and already had won a Barrymore for outstanding new play among the awards announced last month.

Leaders of the celebration also announced a new, recurring $10,000 award, the June and Steve Wolfson Award for an outstanding small theater company, to be presented for the first time in 2013.

What to do about the Barrymores - which over 18 years have been a source of grumbling about judging procedures even as they've been a source of pride - was a major point of discussion over the summer, as was what to do about the loss of the organization that represented Philadelphia-area theater, which produces upward of 180 professional shows a year.

The Theatre Alliance's board had declared that it did not want to compete for funding with the theaters it served, and said the region now has such a vibrant theater community that its mission was fulfilled.

No one can disagree about vibrancy; audiences here display an appetite for live theater, supporting not just the large pool of professional companies but also plenty of new work, plus one of the nation's largest festivals of fringe and experimental theater and a growing number of companies devising all their own work in group efforts - a relatively new model in the American theater.

The alliance board's reasoning that theater professionals no longer needed a group to provide general services, run programs that nurture emerging companies, and market theater in general sounded like hokum to theater artists and artistic directors. So a group immediately came together to explore whether theater companies - from the Walnut Street Theatre, which has more than 50,000 subscribers, the most of any theater in the English-speaking world, to the fledgling but growing all-classics Quintessence Theatre Group - could operate without moral and practical support from one another.

"We were just trying to talk about what might happen; there were a lot of questions in the air," says Terrence J. Nolen, producing artistic director of Arden and one of the eight people who've been part of the discussion since the alliance folded. "Folks seemed to be galvanized by the idea that, although the theater community now is vital, an alliance or coalition can be really helpful for the overall theater ecology," he says.

The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance had stepped in immediately to help continue some services, among them a website for job announcements and an Internet list-serve on which theater artists communicate. But the Cultural Alliance must represent all the arts, which worries some.

"My fear is that the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance is so large, some smaller theater companies might get lost in the shuffle," said Kevin Glaccum, who runs one of those, Azuka Theatre, which performs in a new space in Center City. Glaccum is one of the eight who met to try to chart a course. "With an organization focused strictly on this discipline, theater, I think more people will get more service."

So Monday night's celebration is over, and on Tuesday the group, which calls itself Theatre Philadelphia, will come together at the Arden with scores of other professionals, signing on to take control of what they hope will be a unified future.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at www.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

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