At the 25-year-old Arden Theatre Company on Second Street, things were getting really tight inside its building with common areas and two stages, the Haas and the Arcadia.
“The Arden has been in Old City since 1995 and when we bought the building we’re in we thought we would never fill it. And we have been popping at the seams for about five years,” says managing director and Arden co-founder Amy Murphy. “Our work with kids has really expanded our audience and we knew we needed new space.”
That new space, called the Arden’s Hamilton Family Arts Center, officially opens at 4 p.m. Friday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The building is just a few doors north of the Arden’s theaters, where drama programs that serve about 2,000 kids from pre-school through high school have been taking over the place until only minutes before ticketholders begin arriving for main-stage plays.
The Arden’s new 22,000-square-foot building had been a lighting store and before that, an appliance warehouse. The gutted and remodeled building has many classrooms and also gives the Arden a third theater – a flexible 80-seater for smaller shows and for the company’s busy new play development series. The building allows the Arden to run stagecraft-related shops it could never before have on site: a props shop; a studio for creating film, video and sound; and a scenery shop much larger than the set-building space the Arden has rented nearby.
Up to now the Arden, one of the city’s major theater companies, has built its sets “like Legos, in pieces,” says Murphy. Builders carried the pieces across a street and put scenery together piece by piece on one of the Arden’s stages. “We’ll still have to break it down, but not as small, so it will make assembly in the theater much quicker,” Murphy says.
The theater company was founded by Murphy, Aaron Posner and Terrence J. Nolen, its producing artistic director and now Murphy’s husband. (Posner is no longer associated day-to-day with the company.) They began staging performances in 1988, in the intimate fifth-floor space of the Walnut Street Theatre, with a 70-seat house. Two years later, the Arden co-founded a theater space to the rear of St. Stephen’s Church and produced there. That space is now occupied by Lantern Theatre Company.
In 1995, the Arden began producing in its own 50,000 square-foot building at 40 North Second St., in a 360-seat main-stage theatre and a 175-seat studio theatre. Murphy had been eyeing the space a few doors north, at 62 N. Second St., for some time until it became available. The project cost $5.8 million and is named for a $1 million gift philanthropist Dorrance H. “Dodo” Hamilton made. Her son, N. Peter Hamilton, and Lee van de Veldt headed the expansion capital campaign, which brought in $500,000 from Arden board members and $1 million from a Pennsylvania grant supported by Gov. Corbett, plus donations from foundations, corporations and individuals.
The Arden is among six professional theater companies in the region that are building or have recently opened new spaces – a stage boom unusual for any city. It’s not just a coincidence. Professional theater in the region has itself been booming, with more than 50 stage companies now producing work, up from 18 about 25 years ago. Audiences here respond to live theaters, which sell more than a million tickets a year, and that’s not counting seats sold for Broadway tours.
Even though the economy’s been tough, the companies have managed to raise the funds for spaces their leaders say they need for different reasons, depending on the company.
The small Luna Theatre Company just ended a run of the stage version of “A Clockwork Orange,” the first show in its new space inside the parish house of the Church of the Crucifixion, on Eighth Street between South and Bainbridge. For another small company, Curio Theatre on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia, a new 64-seat space allows more intimate shows than the company could produce upstairs inside the large church sanctuary, where it still stages more expansive work.
For Bristol Riverside Theatre in Bucks County, a new rehearsal hall and scene shop outside its building allows breathing space on its main stage, where shows used to be rehearsed before they were opened. That means more performances for Bristol Riverside’s shows, plus an opportunity to book in shows from elsewhere.
In Norristown, where Theatre Horizon is a success story in the arts, the company has gone from performances in a high school to a rented space, and now to a spiffy 120-seat house on DeKalb Street in what used to be a Bell Telephone building. Before opening its new building last season, Theatre Horizon had to tailor its shows to certain times of the year at the smaller Centre Theater it had rented down the street.
At the Delaware River, on Race Street and Columbus Boulevard, FringeArts – the organization that runs the annual Fringe Festival here – is deep into a $7 million project at a former fire department pumping station, which is expected to be finished by next fall’s festival. Already open and running is FringeArts’ new 240-seat theater, which began presenting shows in October. The building will also contain a research and development space for new work, a restaurant and space for catered rentals and a two-level outdoor plaza for performances and food.
The six new theater spaces in the region are being finished just after the openings of a renovated stage in a building owned by Christ Church; a church basement at 17th Street and Sansom for two companies, Azuka Theatre and Inis Nua Theatre, are now also for others; and on the top floor of the Adrienne complex of stages near 20th and Sansom.
This is the arts, so the boom is happening with the help of a lot of supporters, friends and corporations and, in some cases, government agencies that see live theater as an engine for growth in restaurants, parking and other areas. The Avenue of the Arts, on Broad Street, has already demonstrated that the arts can bring nightlife to a neighborhood. So has the Arden – its residence and drawing power has helped spur more than 30 new restaurants as neighbors since the stage company moved into Old City.
The new Arden space, at 62 N. Second Street, will be open to the public from 10 a.m -2 p.m. Sunday for an open house, with no entry charge.