Skip to content
Arts & Culture
Link copied to clipboard

Arden Theatre: 30 years old, and a force that helped Old City happen

The Arden Theatre Company's 30th anniversary this season is a testament to clear vision, luck, a lot of work, and talent. But its story is also about a neighborhood, Old City, that in part revitalized around it.

Co-founders of the Arden Theater, Amy Murphy and Terrence Nolan are seated on the stage.for the musical production, "Cabaret."
Co-founders of the Arden Theater, Amy Murphy and Terrence Nolan are seated on the stage.for the musical production, "Cabaret."Read moreMichele Frentrop

There's a lot of turnover in the theater world, many an entrance and exit, so the Arden Theatre Company's 30th anniversary this season is a testament to clear vision, luck, a lot of work, and even more talent.

But this story embraces more than a theater – it's about a neighborhood, Old City, that in part revitalized around the Arden, and how an arts venue plays a potent role in such transformations.

It began with two 1980s theater buddies at Northwestern University near Chicago. "Aaron Posner and I talked all the time about starting a theater," says Arden cofounder and producing artistic director Terrence J. Nolen. "We were excited by the vibrant small-theater scene in Chicago, where you had actors like Joan Allen, Gary Sinise, and John Malkovich doing world-class work in theaters with 200 seats. We wanted to start a storefront theater that used local people to do great work." Nolen longed to go back home to Philly and give it a shot.

Life intervened. Cofounder Amy Murphy, who met Nolen when both were at Upper Darby Summer Stage, says that as of the mid-1980s, "Terry was in L.A., trying to find work there. I was in New York, and Aaron was in grad school in Dallas at SMU. When Terry said, 'Let's do this,' I thought, 'Sure, I can go down for a few weeks and help out.' Right. We were 24, young, and dumb enough to do it."

The Arden is named for the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare's As You Like It. Its first home was the then-Walnut Street Theatre Studio (all of 70 seats) upstairs. After a year of Philly networking, Nolen and Posner had met Bernard Havard, president and producing artistic director at the Walnut. "He let them use his theater for 10 percent of the box office," Murphy says, amazement in her voice. "He shared everything – marketing information, production resources, archives. And the Walnut gave us credibility."

Arden opened in 1988 with a Kurt Vonnegut adaptation. From 1990 to 1995, it was at the St. Stephen's Alley space (150 seats!) now occupied by the Lantern Theater. Looking to grow, in 1994 the Arden bought a 50,000-square-foot building at 40-50 N. Second Street, where it has been ever since, expanding all the time.

In 1995, it did its first show on a small stage, Major Barbara. It opened the 360-seat F. Otto Haas Stage in 1998, the same year it did its first Children's Theatre production (Charlotte's Web). In 2013, the Hamilton Family Arts Center opened, and, this year, it's the 100-seat Selma M. and Robert J. Horan Studio Theatre (the "Bob and Selma") at the Hamilton Building.

Arden has put on adaptations of literary works (as in Posner's Stupid F-ing Bird), classics (A Midsummer Night's Dream), original productions (as in this season's TouchTones, a musical by local playwright Michael Hollinger and Robert Maggio, Oct. 19-Dec. 3), and classic musicals (as in a cabaret-style Cabaret, running now through Oct. 22).

Is there an Arden philosophy? "Our first commitment is to Philly actors," Nolen says. "When we first opened and started getting great reviews, people said, 'Where did you get these actors?' We said, 'They're from here.' Such was the skepticism that we often heard, 'Well, if they're this good, they'll be in New York inside a year.' "

Arden folks have gone to New York and all over. Posner himself is a great example: He left in 1998 to become one of the country's most-produced playwrights (number 16, according to a recent listing by American Theatre magazine). But what's remarkable, in a flighty field, is the enduring loyalty of so many Arden alums.

You can feel that loyalty among grads of the Arden Professional Apprentice Program, which turns 25 this year; it has graduated more than 100 busy stage pros, including many of this area's stalwarts. Raelle Myrick-Hodges is founder of Azuka Theatre and a busy theater professional. And she'll direct an adaptation of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye at the F. Otto Haas Stage March 1-April 1. She says, "I began as an apprentice at the Arden 24 years ago, and I'm so grateful I went there instead of to a grad school.

"I learned everything: how to hang a light, how to write a press release, how to lead a production. When we started the Azuka, we didn't have money to pay for rights, so I wrote our first two productions. Arden taught me how to do all that."

The ubiquitous Scott Greer, another former Arden apprentice, has been in productions there since Sunday in the Park with George in 1994. And he'll be in Every Brilliant Thing, which christens the new "Bob and Selma" Nov. 9-Dec. 3. "There's a heavy emphasis on ensemble and collaboration," he says. "I've been cast in things I might not ordinarily have been cast in, which has really helped me stretch. I'm good at comedy, and they've cast me in comedies, but I've also done A Doll's House."

Hollinger, a playwright who's also a professor of theater at Villanova University, got his start at the Arden with a 1994 world-premiere production. Of his new musical, he says: "The Arden imprint is on this one; about half the cast and crew are familiars, about half totally new, and there's a wonderful chemistry that can happen that way."

Unusually, TouchTones, a musical 12 years a-borning, will play on the smaller upstairs Arcadia Stage rather than the F. Otto Haas. Hollinger loves it: "That will allow it to run twice as long, give people a chance to see it, and a musical in an intimate space can really have impact."

Greer says Arden's 1995 arrival helped revitalize the 'hood: "When they got the space in Old City, they were a big part of changing that neighborhood. There was hardly anything there, and they started bringing in subscribers eight nights a week."

Ellen Yin, proprietor of Fork at 306 Market St., says that when the Arden arrived, "I just remember it feeling like this theater would anchor Old City as a cultural neighborhood. You already had First Fridays, art galleries, Painted Bride, and the Ritz, but their location at Second and Arch would really make Old City even more of an arts neighborhood. When Fringe opened in 1998, they were such huge supporters of that."

The restaurateur said the Arden presence "helped build a clientele for the earlier 5:30-8 p.m. dining hours, which are crucial." She and several other restaurant owners regularly have partnerships with the theater. "The Arden has been," Yin says, "amazing neighbors."

Nolen remembers the early days in Old City, when "one of our funders went to a show here for the first time, and she went out and somebody had broken into her car. We have so many dining partners now. It's great when visiting artists come to town, to take them to High Street or Panorama. Folks are blown away by this great neighborhood."

Blown away is a term Murphy uses for the whole Arden story. "All the people we know, all the good work we've done because of it," she says. "I'm very grateful. All of us are, and I think we always will be."