In Elkins Park, all the estate’s a stage

The Elkins Estate, in Elkins Park, is going through bankruptcy proceedings. The cash-strapped Land Conservancy of Elkins Park is attempting to keep the 42-acre estate from reverting to its previous owners–the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine de Ricci.

During the financial reorganization, the show still goes on.

Driving over the northern border of Philadelphia, a thick, summer canopy of trees hangs over winding streets, obscuring long driveways that end at upper-middle class homes.

One of those driveways leads to a lush estate created by a 19th-century oil tycoon, William Elkins, who built an enormous white marble palace and two smaller Tudor mansions.

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A theater production company called White Pines lures audiences into these secret gardens with performing-arts events.

“One of the great things is having neighbors come and see White Pines events, and saying, ‘thank you,’ ” said White Pines founder Benjamin Lloyd. He describes reactions he hears from Elkins Parkers: “I grew up right around the corner and I have never set foot on this property, and I never knew this was here.”

This summer, Lloyd has started a residency program for theater ensembles. The second ensemble to drop in is New York-based troupe called Dzieci, using the grand buildings and lush grounds to work on a unique creative process.

One technique they call “The Beehive” involves the seven members reciting mythological texts while physically tackling one another on the grass.

It may look like grown children dog-piling each other on a sunny hillside, but it’s work. They are learning their lines, while under stress. It’s the opposite of learning by rote. The aggressively physical exercise forces them to avoid falling into memory patterns that can become habitual.

“It makes me question whether or not I’m truly present–always a challenge for an actor,” said Rebecca Sokoll. “Working in this way forces it. If I’m not there, I will be attacked in some way.”

At Elkins Estate, the troupe is able to do things it could never do in New York: live together as an ensemble for a solid week, and have 42 acres of trees and grass as a private playground.

“There’s a breeze blowing, there are birds singing, bullfrogs—brap–doing their noise. Let’s be outside with this and see if it has an influence on us,” said Dzieci director Matt Mitler, who developed this process mostly through his background with the Polish Theater Laboratory. “Because we are a process-oriented group. We are not a results-oriented group. So every step of the way needs to be fulfilling. In the end, there may not be anything.”

Whatever Dzieci accomplished during its week in Elkins Park, the troupe will present to the public Monday. On Friday night, they will perform “Makbet,” a reimagining of “Macbeth” as Gypsy ritual.

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