Michelle Pauls, of Fishtown's Walking Fish Theatre, has to return some buffet pans to the Memphis Taproom. The recently opened gastro-pub catered her theater's May 17 post-Trenton Avenue Arts Festival party, and she's still pretty excited.
"They're walking distance," she explains, "which is really great for both of us."
When Pauls arrives, Memphis owner Brendan Hartranft is equally excited to see her. He bounds out of the kitchen - which serves tofu tzatziki and Hefeweizen hummus - with an unprompted burst of enthusiasm: "Every day I'm reignited, and the neighborhood hasn't even landed yet!"
Pauls agrees; it's a good time to be making things happen in Fishtown.
Tomorrow, the thing happening will be Walking Fish's "grand opening celebration," marking nine months at its 2509 Frankford Ave. home - a toehold for independent theater in the rapidly changing blue-collar Fishtown/Kensington area, still rough around the edges but already home to galleries, restaurants and condos.
Pauls is Walking Fish's managing artistic director; her husband, Stan Heleva, is resident playwright and producing artistic director. Two years ago, neither of the fortysomethings imagined that today they'd be running their own brick-and-mortar 40-seat theater.
They grew up in Allentown, but met in the '90s in Philadelphia's theater world, where they ran Bloody Someday Productions. (Founded in 1993, it later changed its name to B. Someday when, Pauls says, "someone on the board suggested that maybe schools wouldn't want to write checks to someone with 'Bloody' in their name.")
After a long run of productions in and around Philadelphia, including the early Fringe Festivals, in 2002 "we had a kid [Astrid]. . . . We were just ready for something different. We thought maybe we'd open up a restaurant or coffee shop."
But nothing stuck until 2006, when the couple, by now living in Fishtown, took advantage of a pilot program by the New Kensington Community Development Corp. promoting mixed-use artist space.
For $70,000 they purchased a former flophouse from the corporation, which assumed some of their debt on the condition that the theater remain an arts-related venture with attached living space for five years. Heleva set about rehabbing the site, which, Pauls recalls, "had holes all the way through the roof and floors, and pigeons, and cats. . . ."
The ambitious renovation took 15 months, during which time they made ends meet by "doing what most actors do" - teaching, bartending, etc. But once in, they quickly mounted an ambitious performance schedule and got the word out to neighbors.
"One older man came in," Pauls recalls, "and said, 'I remember when this was a barbershop,' and he signed up for the mailing list. . . . Most people who stop in say, 'I'm really glad you're doing this. It's really helping the neighborhood.' "
The theater runs a number of regular monthly series - a stand-up-comedy night; a hipster burlesque show (always sold out) featuring cast members from the now-defunct Center City nightclub the Five Spot; and a children's-book reading series. It also hosts two fully staged plays a year, and offers improv and children's acting classes.
Pauls, a visiting teaching artist at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School, will use her stage for the school's storytelling program, which helps kids turn narratives from their lives into theater. By bringing students - and their families - inside, Pauls hopes the program will build connections between the area's rapidly growing arts presence and its longtime residents.
Thus far, Walking Fish's most successful efforts to blend the two communities are its improv class and its family series.
Teri Ramsay, a 22-year Fishtown resident, has tried both. Executive director of the Neighborhood Parenting Program of By My Side, an organization that helps formerly homeless mothers, she says of the children's-book shows, "We were doing a literacy series called 'The Mother Goose,' and as part of our grant we had to do a public event. So [Pauls] developed a couple of readings for us based on the
Frog and Toad
books, and they were such a success!"
Ramsay also tried improv at Walking Fish last fall, and fell in love: "Some folks who came initially thought it was like stand-up and doing routines, but it's really like mental tai chi."
Pauls estimates that three-quarters of the audience for the kids' series is from Fishtown/Kensington; for improv, it's 50 percent.
As Walking Fish's grand-opening ceremony nears, Pauls' enthusiasm mounts - she mentions several times that City Councilman Frank DiCicco will be on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, and that State Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione will issue a citation ("the good kind," she adds).
Yet before she has even finished celebrating, Pauls and Heleva are helping to expand the local theater scene. They - along with others, including Live Arts Festival producing director Nick Stuccio, Pig Iron Theatre, and Brat Productions - have been consulted about participating in a larger theater, to be built by the Kensington development corporation at Susquehanna and Frankford Avenues.