Upstairs at the Plays & Players Theater on Delancey Street, just outside the room housing Quig's Pub, someone has bumped into Dennis Murphy, 71, at the happy-hour food table and knocked his plate of shrimp to the floor.
Meanwhile, in the black-box theater next to the bar, behind a thick black velvet curtain, the Plays & Players company is rehearsing a wordless staccato preamble to Tom Stoppard's Travesties, with Lenin and Joyce as characters and set 100 years ago, around the same time the theater itself was born.
Back near the fireplace, there is a scramble to retrieve Murphy's food, clear out the logjam in front of the table, and restore the genteel order of this monthly happy hour, itself an echo of the old days when the old crowd performed community theater and gathered at the bar for weekly boisterousness.
At the rehearsal, a circuit has blown and the lights have gone out and everyone stands frozen in the space, lit only by a flashlight app from an iPhone.
All in all, it is a frenzied, absurdist tableau of a split identity — not to mention downstairs, where, in a meta touch, the main stage area is set for a Plays & Players themed wedding — befitting a century-old theatrical institution that to save itself is undergoing a radical shift in identity.
At Plays & Players, the old guard has turned the reins over, somewhat reluctantly, to the youngsters: Daniel Student, 30, producing artistic director, and Rachel Dukeman, 28, managing director, both former volunteers who are now on staff. The two have a master plan to save the building, with $2.5 million in renovations and a vision of reinvigorating the private social club and remaking the house company as a professional group for emerging actors and playwrights.
"We've become relevant again," said Student.
Begun as a social club devoted to developing theater by and for its members, the building saw the debut of Stalag 17 and featured Kevin Bacon as a child actor in A Member of the Wedding. The theater was the brainchild of Maud Durbin Skinner, wife of acclaimed actor Otis Skinner. Student noted that Lady Gregory, the famed Irish playwright, appeared at P & P in its first season as a guest speaker, just a month before she was put on trial in Philadelphia for immorality for the tour she helped produce of The Playboy of the Western World.
Student says the new mission is really a return to the original identity of the organization in pre-Actors Equity days, when there was less distinction in quality between a professional company and an exclusive club performing for its own membership.
"The reason we exist is to continue the work of 100 years," Student said. "There's not a single artist who will tell you they don't walk into the theater and catch their breath. There's not another space like this. They knew how to build a stage in 1911."
In its more recent history, professional theater companies such as 1812 Productions, Theater Exile, and, until it built its own theater on Broad Street, the Philadelphia Theatre Company rented its stages, but the house company itself remained resolutely avocational, quirky, and exuberant, a community theater with volunteer-fueled, right-out-of-John Irving productions ranging from a Winnie the Pooh trilogy to Agatha Christie to Lost in Yonkers.
Some of the old guard appeared in a commemorative staging of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband last month, a play performed in the first season of the company a century ago.
For stalwarts such as Ray Smith, 65, it represented the last time performing on that storied, eccentric stage. They are realists, but they admit to some mixed feelings about the direction of the organization.
"The concept of community theater is going away, at least in the city," Smith said, after helping his partner, Murphy, with the toppled shrimp. "We were an all-volunteer organization. The charm of it was that in addition to the acting, we had the bar."
Ah, the bar. Quig's Pub, under the direction of the emerging professional actors themselves, has again become an after-hours gathering spot for the theater crowd, and was named best after-hours scene in Philadelphia Magazine last year.
"We're trying to give it more of a specific theater vibe, to bring Plays & Players into the professional vibe," said Keith Conallen, assistant social club manager and professional actor, most recently in Flashpoint Theater Company's production of slip/shot by Jacqueline Pardue Goldfinger. There are currently about 200 paid members ($35 a year). "We've been turning quite a nice profit. Our crowd comes in after theaters let out. "
The changes at Plays & Players are both a reflection of financial realities — the building is in dire need of renovation — and the current state of Philadelphia theater: In the last six years, the number of Equity actors has doubled, to about 900. A city that had about 50 companies a decade ago now has 150. The professional and emerging theater scene in town is bursting at the seams. With companies moving up and into new or bigger spaces, smaller companies are filling every possible stage in town. One as lovely as the stage on the old 1700 block of horse stables on Delancey — with enviable acoustics, intimate sight lines, and soulful history — would naturally be gobbled up by the new generation. How could it not be?
"You're seeing some of the growing pains the Philadelphia theater industry is experiencing right now," said Margie Salvante of the soon-to-be disbanded Theater Alliance (its networking functions are in part being replaced by the membership of Quig's Pub). "Ultimately, it's a really positive story. The industry is really coming into its own. There's this next generation of serious professional theater artists building out the infrastructure of the Philadelphia theater market."
What the old guard still has, as board of directors, is stewardship of the building. Its decline is what ultimately forced the hand of the community theater folks. "You have a beautiful building in decline," said Sara Garonzik of the Philadelphia Theatre Company, which was in negotiations to buy the Plays and Players building for a time but ultimately built the new Suzanne Roberts Theater on Broad Street, bringing with it the best of the P&P design features. "Anyone who sits on the board needs to turn their attention properly toward the building. It has to be made safe and beautiful. That little theater has been used continually and heavily for a hundred years and deserves support and nurturing. It's crying out for that."
Dukeman is spearheading fund-raising and plans to rehab the building, including new stage lighting, mural restoration, a new marquee, seats, heating, air-conditioning, a total refurbishing. The plans were developed by the Community Design Collaborative, pro bono.
Meanwhile, Student, at the artistic helm, is developing themed seasons and has brought a playwright residency to the organization, with plans for an actors' residency. This season is themed to the 100th anniversary, next season to the American presidency, and the following to "Think Global." Student has also committed to producing an African American theme each season. The room next to the bar was converted to a more contemporary "black box" stage to complement the 325-seat main stage.
While Student and Dukeman express a fondness for the theater's meandering history, they are moving full steam ahead with their new mission to support emerging professional artists. Smith recalls the days of old with hilarity: In an exceptionally long production of a play called Hamlet ESP, he had one small part toward the end and was able to attend a friend's wedding out in the suburbs and come back in time to sip coffee for 15 minutes before he got onstage to "call the duel" in the final two scenes. For people with day jobs but a passion for theater, this was their life. "This was one of the few outlets for your talent," he said. "I"m sorry to see that go."