It has been a stressful year for Theatre Exile, a year in the life of one of Philly's vigorous, agile neighborhood theaters.
As A.D. Amorosi reported in the July 24 Metro, the South Philadelphia theater, celebrating its 20th anniversary, had its home on South 13th Street sold out from under it and faced the prospect of being,well, homeless.
"You never like not knowing, not being 100 percent sure," says founding artistic director Joe Canuso. "We just want to get settled again."
"I've been breathing into a bag for about a year," says Deborah Block, producing artistic director. "I literally made a bag I have on my desk for breathing into. It's been so stressful. So many things to figure out."
Quick, creative thinking saved the day. If all papers get signed, as Block expected them to by Friday, July 28, Theatre Exile will be in exile only 18 months or so and can then move back to its digs at 1340 S. 13th St.
How's that for melodrama?
"Hey, it's theater," Block says. "Sure, it's incredibly stressful to live in the unknown — but we're nimble, and we've been nomads before."
Theater Exile has been at its 13th Street address since 2009. It has shared the building with Cottman Transmission and Total Auto Care for a while now.
The sale of the building came as no surprise. "I had been speaking with the previous landlord for about a year," Block says. "I sensed they were getting ready to sell the building."
Last summer, when Cottman moved out, for-sale signs went up, and a terrific bidding war ensued. The owners got double the asking price — "it's a fabulous neighborhood," Block says — "and we made an offer on it, trying to get foundation support." The Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation (PARC) also tried to help raise money. "But the bidding far outdistanced what we could pay."
Last August, developers Noah Ostroff and Mickey Murray got the building, and they soon had a plan to create 23 apartments there, with a commercial space on the ground floor. Block and Canuso suggested, more than once, that maybe Theatre Exile could be in that space. They got smiles and heard, "You can't afford us."
On went the light bulb. "We said to them, 'You do know that most of what a theater does can be underground?' " Block says. " 'We'd need a ground-level presence for the lobby, but after that, like a lot of theaters, we can go down into the basement and make a theater there.' "
Ostroff and Murray were intrigued, plans were drawn up, and negotiations followed. Architects Landmark Architectural Design, happy to try something new, have worked with Theatre Exile to design the space, "after which we'll go in and finish it up as a theater," Block says, "probably in fall 2018."
And that's what's happening. It will take a year and change, but the theater will be built, with Theatre Exile moving to temporary offices and venue until then.
There have been bumps, especially regarding parking, but a variance was sought from the city and granted. A verbal agreement exists, but as of late Friday afternoon, a lease had not yet been signed. "It is my belief," Block says, "that everyone wants to make this happen."
And Theatre Exile's temporary yurt, or theater, will be (at least for the 2017-2018 season) the Latvian Society of Philadelphia at 531 N. Seventh St., where EgoPo and other nimble outfits often perform.
When will the first production raise the curtain at their old/new digs? Probably in spring 2019.
"No, being nomads is no problem for us," says Block. "It's the dearth of space. There are a lot of small theaters in Philly."
And it was important to Theatre Exile to land back home. "I grew up in South Philly," says Canuso. "I'm very tied to that community, that part of the world. We love where we are so much, feel so much a part of it, and the community has embraced us."
"We wanted to stay in South Philly and keep our individuality there," Block says, "especially now that it's become more and more vibrant."