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Walnut Street Theatre announces a major expansion, set to start in 2020

After years of "bursting at the seams," the two-century-old Walnut Street Theatre will add a theater in the round, a restaurant, and more.

Planned Walnut Street Theatre expansion, artist's rendering, view from Walnut Street: Visible is a new grand staircase, a restaurant next to it, a second-floor balcony, and rehearsal spaces on the third floor.
Planned Walnut Street Theatre expansion, artist's rendering, view from Walnut Street: Visible is a new grand staircase, a restaurant next to it, a second-floor balcony, and rehearsal spaces on the third floor.Read moreCourtesy of the Walnut Street Theatre

The Walnut Street Theatre announced Saturday evening that fund-raising is now underway for a substantial new wing of the building. Plans would expand the 210-year-old theater’s footprint partway into the parking lot next door and add a 400-seat theater in the round.

The three-story, 35,000-square-foot addition would break ground in May 2020 and be completed in 2022.

To fund the $39 million expansion and renovation, a capital campaign will seek support from private philanthropy and public sources. Richard A. Mitchell, chair of the Walnut Street Theatre board, said, “we’re already about 55 to 60 percent of the way there, so we’re feeling very good about it.”

In addition to the new theater in the round, which will be on the second floor, the expansion will accommodate a redesigned and expanded first-floor lobby area and on-site lobby restaurant, third-floor rehearsal halls, and a dedicated space for education programs. The addition will build out east, into part of the parking lot; parking will still be available in the remainder of the lot.

Founded in 1809, the Walnut is said to be the oldest continually operating theater in the United States. This adaptable, sturdy building at the corner of Ninth and Walnut has seen many changes and renovations, including a crucial 1970 remake that propelled it into its current status as the U.S. theater with the largest subscription base. It now has about 45,000 subscribers on the rolls, according to Bernard Havard, president and producing artistic director. More recent renovations in 1999 concentrated on the main stage.

Once common at places like the Valley Forge Music Fair, which closed in 1996, theaters in the round have been largely gone from the local scene for decades. This one will be an intimate, immediate space, with just six rows of seats surrounding the circular stage; actors will enter and exit via the theater aisles.

“You get to enjoy the other people enjoying the show,” Havard said. “It’s like sitting across from your friends at a dinner, seeing their pleasure and vicariously sharing it as you enjoy your own meal.

“In essence,” Havard said, “we’re moving the program now at Independence Studio on 3 to the new space.” It will serve smaller local theaters and expand the repertoire, including new works and increased children’s and family programming, “and also allow us to do musicals – and Shakespeare.”

His works have been notably absent from a theater once renowned for its Shakespearean productions. Havard said the first two productions he wants to do in the new space are 1776 and Romeo and Juliet.

He also said he hoped the new theater “will continue to further diversify our audience.”

The third-floor rehearsal spaces will provide relief from a long-standing space crunch at the Walnut. “Despite the financial and artistic success at the Walnut," Mitchell said, "we’re just literally bursting at the seams. Independence Studio on 3 is in what was meant to be office space, and many deserving plays we haven’t been able to put on there because of sheer lack of space.”

The current rehearsal areas are similarly inadequate, “making it very difficult to get ready for shows of any size," Mitchell said. "And we just don’t have enough dressing-room space. It’s like the Phillies having spring training in an indoor stadium with no right field and a dome that’s 50 feet high.”

Former rehearsal areas will be used for the Walnut’s theater education program, involving up to 150,000 students and teachers yearly. The new lobby restaurant will serve patrons before and after shows and the public when no show is on.

An animated fly-through of the renovation is at