Tilting at windmills on Broad St.
A new play, "Quixote," gives voice to the city's neediest.
It begins when a New York director with a passion for on-the-edge theater visits her Philadelphia boyfriend and they check out a diverse South Broad Street church. She sees people from different social, racial, and religious backgrounds pray and break bread together. Among them: the city's neediest.
"I was astounded by what I found there," says Lear deBessonet, 28, who grew up a fundamentalist Christian in Baton Rouge, La.
She meets the Rev. Bill Golderer, a pastor with a passion for social justice who is looking for a meaningful arts presence in his church, not, he says, typical "church arts or community theater" because Broad Street Ministry is not a typical church but an egalitarian collection of Philadelphians of all stripes.
Bring in the Psalters, a local gypsy-Christian punk band. Enter 30 or so community members, including a handful of homeless people, interested in being in a show. Import four professional actors from New York, and engage one from Philly, the former artistic director of a Center City company. Collaborate with a scriptwriter, a puppeteer, stage designers, and a choreographer to adapt a great 17th-century work about a delusional, do-gooder knight whose compassion turns ugly reality into the purity of love.
The result: Quixote, a new play opening in previews at the church Thursday, a project that underscores the random nature of connecting in the big city and the creative force that moves those connections to new levels. Somewhere along the way, art happens.
In this case, it happens on the second floor of Broad Street Ministry at 315 S. Broad St., the Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church building, where John Wanamaker worshiped. Over decades the congregation dwindled, then died in 2001, and the building sat vacant until it was reborn in 2005 as a beacon for social change, led by Golderer and backed by six local Presbyterian churches.
Liam O'Donnell, the church's "arts marshal," said in an Inquirer interview in December that "if we act as if Broad Street Ministry is about OK people helping not-OK people, that's not a community."
Golderer expands on that idea, describing how Quixote's plot contains the essence of his church: "The transformation is mutual. What happens is, Don Quixote is transformed. And transformation is visited upon the object of his concern."
DeBessonet's Quixote, with a cast of 45, including the band, will unfold on a wooden floor and on the colonnaded balcony above it. The temporary theater will seat 70 for each performance of the two-week run.
The cast's nonprofessional players reflect the breadth of the church's congregants, who range from "two immediate past presidents of the Union League" to "some of the poorest people in Philadelphia," Golderer says.
In addition to those who are homeless, some who feel at home at Broad Street Ministry are addicted or victims of violence, "invisible to the system," he says. "When they say, 'I need help; can you help me?' that's a big trust barrier broken."
The church tries, with food after each service, meeting, and symposium; outreach services with a swath of workers from different agencies; and an "overnight cafe" where the homeless can rest.
Here, across the Avenue of the Arts from the Kimmel Center and University of the Arts, the church has thrived for four years; corporate and private donations and gifts from the now 16 supporting Presbyterian congregations have lifted its original $23,000 budget to $1.1 million.
And because of the rich neighborhood mix Golderer inherited - empty-nesters in luxe condos, artists, students from the University of the Arts, professionals, hipsters - he decided in 2005 "to create a posture in relationship to the arts," to expand the Avenue of the Arts to everyone.
In 2007, deBessonet walked right into it. When the director of outre Off-Broadway theater first walked in with her boyfriend, Tom Gray, then a Philadelphia public defender, "he was like, 'Oh! Many of my clients are in here!' "
The couple became increasingly intrigued by a church whose essence was action. In February 2008, deBessonet and Golderer had their first talk about setting Cervantes' masterpiece, Don Quixote, there.
"I proposed this project," she says, remembering the 6 a.m. meeting with a church task force. " 'This might be insane,' " I said, 'but what if we did a sort of funky-ass Man of La Mancha that would engage people and would include both professional actors and part of the community?'
"This place," she says, "was my muse. Part of what I do is see spaces and imagine what could happen in them. To me, that room where we'll be performing felt like 16th-century Spain. And the themes of that story intersect with what this place is about.
"The central question: Is it insane to believe in a more just world and a more noble and fair world? And the serious possibility that if that is insane, then, yes, it is worth doing."
This is the sort of project deBessonet lives to do. She's the artistic director of a New York collective called Stillpoint Productions, whose mission is to mix history with contemporary imagination.
In her recent version of the musical Oliver! all the beggar kids were girls, and Fagin was deep into the sex trade. "I heard the song 'Who Will Buy?' Suddenly all the things seemed to come together."
In the same way, Quixote became the project of a woman from Louisiana who began directing at age 5 in her backyard, and a pastor who grew up on the Main Line and cut his teeth as a political consultant to a group challenging the religious right.
DeBessonet reached an agreement with Equity, the professional actors' union, and hired five pros: four New York actors and Philadelphia's Robert Smythe, founder of the now-defunct Mum Puppettheatre. He'll portray Rocinante, horse of the errant knight Quixote.
DeBessonet set about gathering her cast "through 10 different tentacles" that included the church's groups, the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, and various college announcements. Auditioners ranged from homeless people who had prepared two monologues to theater students with resumes - "the awkward stepchild of American Idol auditions," deBessonet recounts.
Playwright Lucy Thurber has written skippable scenes for nights when some of the cast can't make it. "It's obviously hard for someone in a transient housing situation," deBessonet explains.
"We've lost about five people, for various reasons. One got pneumonia. One fell off the wagon and had to go back to rehab. He came really drunk, essentially to tell us this happened to him. We hope he will return Sunday."
It's an extreme situation for a director who builds largely from scratch and must keep things in a certain order to move forward.
"This entire effort collapses like a house of cards if it isn't good," she realizes, aloud, and in almost the same breath talks, a Quixote with script in hand, about the thrill of creating this.
"Quixote," she says, "directly puts the idea of what a beautiful life would be up against the reality of suffering. If we don't have a grandiose fiction about what it would be like, well, we rely on these fictions to do things we have to do."