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Kimmel Center gets a time machine for arts festival

The concept that unlocks the possibilities of time travel may remain obscure. But what we now know about time machines is that they take up a lot of space.

The Time Machine. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
The Time Machine. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff PhotographerRead more

The concept that unlocks the possibilities of time travel may remain obscure. But what we now know about time machines is that they take up a lot of space.

One such specimen landed Monday morning in the lobby of the Kimmel Center as workers began assembling an enormous "interactive" time machine to be the centerpiece of the Kimmel's upcoming arts festival. With its time-travel theme, the 2013 Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts will frame performances and other events with time-related exhibits and activities experienced in the 100-foot-long cylinder.

Something between a museum exhibit and a piece of conceptual art, "it's meant to stimulate our thinking about time," said designer Jorge Cousineau.

Details are still coming together, but the goal of the piece is to "connect the dots among people in everything from cave drawings to strands of DNA," said time machine artistic director Jay Wahl.

The magnum opus, which cost $450,000 to fabricate, also promises to stir ideas about space - more specifically, the limited amount of it remaining in the Kimmel lobby after the erection of the time machine, two PIFA lobby stages, and a new food concession stand. These features will make it harder to maneuver in the Kimmel for the run of the festival, from March 28 through April 27.

Crowds promise to be dense, especially when PIFA is drawing its own audiences while resident companies are bringing as many as 2,500 to Verizon Hall and 600 to the Perelman.

Walking into the Kimmel lobby already has become a dramatically different experience. Rather than unimpeded access, visitors have only tight spaces in which to congregate and slim alleys through which to reach the ticket booth or hall entrances. Kimmel leaders are encouraging Perelman visitors to use the smaller, southernmost Broad Street entrance to the hall.

With its share of patrons using canes and walkers, is this new higher density safe?

"I think it is," says Kimmel senior vice president J. Edward Cambron. "People are going to fill the vessel, so to speak."

Kimmel president/chief executive Anne Ewers said: "When the Kimmel Center was first envisioned, people wanted to see the plaza as a vibrant, active space. That, to me, is so thrilling; it is going to be what people envisioned it could be."

Cambron said no certificate of occupancy or other city license was necessitated by or sought because of the physical changes. The goal is to draw 200,000 visitors to the lobby during the month-long festival, he said.

"It will be more crowded than it has ever been, no question, but I keep thinking of the Academy of Music lobby," which, he points out, is small.

Visitors to the Academy, however, are not invited to linger for free programming in public spaces. Time machine visitors, on the other hand, will spill out around a stage where a 20-minute musical with 16 actors, puppetry, dance and song is to be produced twice nightly. Other performances will take place on a second new stage nestled against the east side of Verizon Hall. A "pop-up restaurant" run by Jose Garces' company is being erected on the south side of the plaza.

If the space is tight and time manipulable, money for the festival is still in transit.

Ewers says the Kimmel's $5.3 million expenditure on the festival (participating resident companies undertook additional expenses) is nearly $1 million short of its fund-raising goal. With several funders at the point of "signing on the line," she was confident the rest would be raised.

One element planned for the festival won't be done: Garces' new restaurant in the ground-floor space formerly occupied by the gift shop.

"We looked at the cost of [construction], and it was substantially higher than was originally envisioned," said Ewers. "I am thrilled to say they have found a way to do everything we intended, and from the consumer's perspective it is just as wonderful." Construction is now set to begin in March, with a September opening, Ewers said.

Soon after, at the festival's conclusion, the time machine will be taken down, and, as was the case with the 81-foot-tall facsimile of the Eiffel Tower created for the 2011 PIFA, parts may be repurposed.

Like some conceptual art, it will cease to exist - proving that no object transcends its period of usefulness. Not even a time machine.