"I'm hopeful, I'm excited, and I'm terrified."
So says Paige Price, producing artistic director at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, describing how it feels to wake up your company after 16 months of semi-hibernation.
During that time, PTC did not put on any self-produced shows, instead programming a series of special events — from experimental works such as Bess Wohl's Small Mouth Sounds to popular fare like the princess holiday concert A Dream Is a Wish.
Meantime, Price moved money and people around and got the oft-strapped theater in trim fighting shape. Now PTC is back, opening its 2018-19 season with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat by Lynn Nottage (Oct. 12-Nov. 4) and a cast of some of Philly's finest actors.
Its diversity and Philly-intensive cast makes Sweat something encouragingly different for often middle-of-the-road PTC (as is How to Catch Creation, scheduled for later in the season). It's a big, bold move. The question is: Will it work?
"What remains to see is, Will they come? Will they support us? If people come back and see what we're up to," Price says, "I think we'll get them back. No question, a lot is riding on this season-opener. The stakes are unbelievably high. But no pressure, right?"
An anchor on the Avenue
Since 1974, PTC has been a big brand in the Philly theater world. The company has given world premieres of several plays that have gone on to Broadway, including Some Men by Terrence McNally, who has premiered several of his plays there.
At its home since 2007, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, PTC is also major anchor on the Avenue of the Arts.
But PTC has been financially perilous. Price was lured here last year from Theatre Aspen in Colorado, where she'd boosted revenue by 127 percent. When she took PTC semi-dark in June 2017, the company was reported to be carrying about $1 million in debt. "It's now zero," she reports, thanks largely to the semi-hiatus.
Local philanthropists and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. had stepped in to help right the ship in 2015, buying back the theater building from foreclosure for $5 million and giving PTC five years to pay off the debt with relatively small monthly payments and a lump-sum of $1.85 million due in 2020.
To move forward, Price also had to make a clearing in the organizational jungle PTC had become — a process that "took a lot of time and wasn't always comfortable," she says.
The physical theater itself awaits transformation. What to do with that long lobby parallel to South Broad? Can it be rendered more crowd-friendly, Price wonders? And plans move forward to create a smaller upstairs stage of the kind so successful at the Walnut Street Theatre and the Arden Theatre Company. But to address all that, the theater must not only survive, but also prosper.
As to the audience question, Price says the semi-dark season suggested there is a diverse potential audience out there interested in a range of entertainments. In addition to the Wohl work and princess concert, PTC also brought in one-person shows like Aaron Davidman's Wrestling Jerusalem and Kathleen Turner's Finding My Voice. "I'm thinking a lot about not just how many will come, but who'll they be, what kind of people," she says.
This season's focus is on "complex narratives and female characters who are reconciling their dreams with their realities," she notifies patrons on the PTC website.
"I admire Paige and her courage and the work she's been doing," says Susan Sherman, CEO of the Independence Foundation, a nonprofit that helps fund projects in health care, human services, legal aid, and arts and culture.
It's a complicated arts market out there, Sherman says: "Audiences have changed dramatically — people aren't buying subscriptions anymore. … And the competition now available for entertainment, such as movies and TV and online content [such as Netflix] are really making it harder to attract that audience." Like other arts organizations in town, PTC must both keep its older audience and attract a younger clientele.
Which brings us to “Sweat” …
And so the season begins.
Sweat is one of the hottest properties in U.S. theater, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2017, with hot-button issues appealing to both older and younger audiences. (Interestingly, People's Light in Malvern will launch its own version Jan. 16.) And Price has assembled an all-star Philly cast, including Walter DeShields, Kimberly Fairbanks, Rich Hebert, J. Hernandez, Suli Holum, Kittson O'Neill, Matteo Scammell, Damien Wallace, and Brian Anthony Wilson.
Sweat focuses on the "deindustrial revolution" that hit hard in Reading, Pa. Industrial workers watch as their long-established worlds fall apart. Generational conflict, the spread of blight, the closing of factories, even the drug epidemic come into view.
The play has become famous for the way playwright Nottage researched and wrote it: embedding herself and her team in Reading, listening as locals spoke of their lives. The town, especially Mike's Tavern, a real Reading watering hole and the lightly fictionalized center of Sweat, is now being called a literary landmark.
"I wanted to tell a story that is true for a lot of cities in this country," Nottage says. "Reading struck me as representative of issues that are still at the forefront of people's minds: a sense of invisibility, that politicians don't care." She says she's excited by having two Philly-area Sweat productions in one year and will be sure to come see it.
In the Nottage spirit, Price had the cast, crew, designers, and a few funders of PTC's Sweat travel to Reading. "The best way for the actors to see what the community has been through and where it's going," she says, "is to go."
DeShields says, "We hung out at Mike's and even played darts. Being there, you could feel the small-town feeling, and also that working-class environment, folks just trying to make it."
O'Neill spoke with the bartender, who "is proud about the play but also finds it strange that the bar has become this kind of celebrity."
“A whole bunch is riding on it”
Do the actors feel the pressure, with so much riding on this particular season opener?
DeShields says, "A whole bunch is riding on it — and, sure, I'm aware of it."
But, as Scammell puts it, "The pressure we feel is the necessity of this story. This is America, this is what we're dealing with here and now. Paige is smart: She picked this for some great reasons. It's a Pulitzer Prize-winning play written by an African American woman, with strong female leads, a diverse cast. We just want to make this a great damn play."
After Sweat comes the Tony-winning musical version of The Bridges of Madison County (Feb. 8-March 3) and the world premiere of Christina Anderson's How to Catch Creation (March 22-April 14).
The latter is a play from the Kilroys' List, an industry survey of un- or underproduced plays by female and trans playwrights. Price has made a commitment to Kilroys' List plays in each season.
PTC will continue to announce touring and nontraditional shows, much like those seen last season, to fill out the 2018-19 season. The princess holiday concert returns for two performances Dec. 16.
As of this writing, as Price reports, previews for Sweat are "all but sold out. And the response from school groups — they're reaching out to us — is really amazing. Interest in Lynn's work, and the Reading theme, is really strong in a lot of the schools."
"I'm feeling like we've put ourselves in a really good position," says Price. Then she shows the pragmatic streak that has earned her such respect: "Early sales are encouraging, but one thing I learned during our gap year is that change is not always welcome, no matter how much it is needed. So I imagine we'll need the entire season to prove ourselves."