Displaced Philly theater companies set the stage for creative hub [photos]

Five displaced theater companies in Philadelphia will turn a former hotel ballroom into a creative hub for new theater.

Behind the Art Deco Drake building at 15th and Spruce streets, a half-block from the Kimmel Center, sits a 6,200-square-foot ballroom built in the 1960s, back when Center City needed things like ballrooms.

It’s an open space with no interfering structural columns, 15-foot ceilings, and two entrances. For almost 20 years, the University of the Arts used it sporadically as a dance space.

When Seth Rozin walked in last year, his jaw dropped.

“We immediately felt we had to move,” said Rozin, the artistic producing director of InterAct Theatre, residing at the nearby Adrienne Theater on Sansom Street. There, the main stage is broken up by support columns every 24 feet and capped by a 10-foot ceiling.

“There’s too much space, the ceilings are 50 percent higher, there are no obstructions,” gushed Rozin. “We could not only make a better go of it, we could make something that doesn’t exist in Philadelphia now. We could create a real hub, a center for new work. We just knew we had to move on it.”

Rozin has been nursing a vision of a shared theater venue that would foster a collaborative theater community and germinate new work. For two years, with a grant from Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, he studied how to make that vision work at his home at the Adrienne. He said the owner did not share his vision.

A similar model of sharing resources exists at Off Broad Street Theater, in a Baptist church on 17th Street, where the Azuka and Inis Nua theatres both have a home. That will cease at the end of the month when a new landlord, Liberti Church, evicts both tenant companies to make renovations.

Rozin is pulling all five theater companies from both buildings under one roof at the Drake, a block and a half away from Avenue of the Arts.

“It’s near the Avenue of the Arts, but not on the Avenue of the Arts,” said Rozin. “It would be hard for us, and anyone who rents here, to live up to the expectations that come with opening a space right on the avenue. But we’re close, so we benefit from its synergy. When people talk about the Avenue of the Arts district, we will be part of that.”

At the Drake, the companies will share space, split costs, and keep the stages lively. The entire space – almost 10,000 square feet when you add the lobby, offices, and storage areas – will be dedicated solely to creating theater. Common areas can be utilized by outside writers, directors, and actors who need a space to write, have a meeting, or just sit down with a coffee between downtown auditions. Rozin envisions hosting playwriting residents and developing devised theater projects.

“It’s Seth’s vision of this being a hub that excited all of these companies,” said Tom Reing, artistic director of Inis Nua. “It’s not a place that you rent for a show. We’re partners in the space. All these companies producing new work for Philadelphia, and new work for the country, will be a good hub to be part of.”

The space is now undergoing $1.5 million renovations to become two stages with 200 seats. Reing will be the first to stage a new work there next fall. He says it’s still too early to know for certain what that show will be.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.