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Local theater community rallies behind Philadelphia Theater Company

Its finances are precarious, the mortgage is in foreclosure. Real estate agents are busily showing its home to potential buyers. A possible savior - Philadelphia's Roberts family - might offer a helping hand, but not yet.

The decades-old Philadelphia Theatre Company is struggling financially.  (David M Warren/Inquirer)
The decades-old Philadelphia Theatre Company is struggling financially. (David M Warren/Inquirer)Read more

Its finances are precarious, the mortgage is in foreclosure. Real estate agents are busily showing its home to potential buyers. A possible savior - Philadelphia's Roberts family - might offer a helping hand, but not yet.

As the Philadelphia Theatre Company hangs on by a thread, theater leaders say its loss would be a blow - artistically, and to the city.

"It's tragic for them, but also to the entire Philadelphia arts community and the idea of an Avenue of the Arts. You lose something like that and you'll need to take the sign down" on the Avenue of the Arts, said playwright Bruce Graham, who has had two plays produced by PTC.

Terrence J. Nolen, the Arden Theatre Company's producing artistic director, said the PTC's abiding interest in American theater has made it a pioneer, and "certainly an important theater here in Philadelphia."

Playwright Terrence McNally said his four world premieres produced by the PTC - including the Tony-winning Master Class - found varying degrees of critical success, "but   not varying degrees of artistic quality."

"I've always had no problem getting first-rate actors and directors who want to work at PTC. That has to be an indication of the reputation they enjoy and the esteem with which they are held. I hope people rally to the cause here. It's so important that it does not go under, that the good people of Philadelphia make sure it doesn't. It's too damn important."

PTC has won praise for consistently choosing material that tackles social issues, particularly works by and about women and minorities.

"Only in February, I was at PTC listening to Anna Deavere Smith discuss her new project focusing on the school-prison pipeline, and exploring whether the public school system has failed children of color," said Wilma Theater artistic director Blanka Zizka. "Here is a major African American artist working with PTC and developing a new piece that reflects a very present American reality. How exciting, daring, and necessary."

Unable to raise what it needed to pay for a new 365-seat theater at Broad and Lombard Streets, the nonprofit PTC was left with more than $11 million in debt, according to tax returns. A full season has been planned for next year - its 40th - but with TD Bank offering the space for sale, it is uncertain where that will happen. PTC hopes a new owner of the space, named for donor Suzanne Roberts, will lease it back to them.

Sara Garonzik, PTC's executive producing director, said that as far as she is concerned, there is no doubt where the company will be in the fall: "As a strategy person, I know there's always a Plan B. But in this case there is only going to be a Plan A. We are going to be in the Suzanne Roberts Theatre by hook or by crook. We're going to do it. Plan A is the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Plan B is the Suzanne Roberts Theatre."

Longtime PTC donors Ralph and Suzanne Roberts commissioned a study on the company's viability from Michael Kaiser, the outgoing president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, but after he produced a preliminary report, they said they would wait until TD Bank's disposal of the theater was further along.

Kaiser's report says all the building debt would have to be eliminated and a cash infusion of at least $2.5 million would be necessary to stabilize finances, according to a spokesman for the Robertses.

Zizka called "unfortunate" the late-2007 timing of the theater's opening - just before the recession. "If any performing arts organization is left with a large mortgage, it's very hard to plan, to dream, and to think conceptually about the future, since the staff and board have to constantly deal with day-to-day financial problems. No consultant will solve this. A donor will."

The crisis at PTC, plus the bankruptcy, revitalization, and now the possible closing in November of the Prince Music Theater, are raising some doubt about whether the tremendous growth of the theater community in the past two decades can be supported.

"It's a great question and one that we are all talking about," said Nolen, whose Arden Theatre is often pointed to as the city's great start-up success story. "It seems that making theater has always been tricky. This is definitely a challenging phase."

"I don't think that the growth of the theater community has made this untenable," said Kevin Glaccum, producing artistic director of Azuka Theatre and president of Theatre Philadelphia, the regional theater umbrella organization that presents the annual Barrymore Awards. "I have to say that as the arts have grown, it is a little Darwinian, a survival of the fittest - which is not to say that the organizations that don't survive are not fit, but for one reason for another they can't make a go of it. I don't think it's from a level of saturation."

The theater scene's fortunes vary from company to company, sometimes play to play, "but other than the Prince and PTC, I don't hear anybody doing a death rattle," he said.

To McNally - winner of four Tonys, an Emmy and two Guggenheim Fellowships - PTC's fight represents nothing less than the survival of a system that creates and nurtures new work, then sends it into the wider world.

"Regional theaters are the lifeblood of American theater," he said. "They are essential to the development of American playwrights. . . . Without them I don't know what New York theater would be, or national theater. I can't think of a play on Broadway that started in New York. They've all started in regional theater."

The system may not be obvious to the typical theatergoer, he said, but "we're not going to have the next Death of a Salesman unless we give writers opportunities, and no one wants theater to be simply a re-creation of past successes. I love the canon, but not at the price of no more new plays."

In a situation perhaps peculiar to Philadelphia, Zizka points to the fact that while a great deal of money was available to build facilities along the Avenue of the Arts, raising money for ongoing operations has been harder. "We cannot have buildings without support for the work that needs to happen inside those buildings," she says.

PTC has faced down trouble before. In 1989, overwhelmed by a mounting deficit, it suspended operations mid-season, canceled productions, and laid off staff. It reorganized the next season after some loans were forgiven and other creditors were paid 20 cents on the dollar. The company began to focus on creating new work, and a few years later hit on perhaps its greatest success, McNally's Master Class, which went on to New York, winning three Tony Awards in 1996: best play, best actress for Zoe Caldwell, and best featured actress for Audra McDonald.

"That was a major event in our institutional life. There are a few of them, and almost always it's been around a new play," said Garonzik, who defined the mission as developing new American plays and musicals. "We look for work of major substance that will inspire dialogue about pressing social and political concerns of the day."

Master Class, inspired by opera singer Maria Callas and developed by McNally for PTC, continues to ripple out to new audiences. "Most producers thought it had a potential audience of a couple hundred people," McNally said, "and we proved them wrong." The play continued on Broadway, most recently with Tyne Daly, but with the Callas role also becoming a vehicle for Patti LuPone, Faye Dunaway, and Dixie Carter. "It is one of the most-produced plays I have written, and I owe so much to Sara for believing in that play," McNally said. "There was a lot of risk involved."

More recently, Kander and Ebb's musical The Scottsboro Boys in 2012 represented a high point artistically for playwright Graham. "I don't stand up at everything, but Scottsboro Boys absolutely blew me away," he said. "It was beautifully executed. I loved the gutsiness of it."

The "next big thing," said Garonzik, is The Pipeline Project with Anna Deavere Smith, in which workshops and town hall meetings assist the playwright in developing her script. "In a perfect world, I would guess it might be ready for the 2015-16 season," she said.

Garonzik said PTC has premiered 38 plays and musicals, as well as 125 or so staged readings, workshops, and commissions of new plays since 1986. Some, of course, were better received than others. McNally said that in a way, theater is like baseball. "How many baseball games are really exciting? You have to sit through 30 regular ones before you see a no-hitter."

In the meantime, Graham said, the quality is very high. "No one else is doing what they're doing on the level that they're doing." How will that be able to continue? Said Graham: "I'm hoping for an angel."