In 1942, East Falls native Grace Kelly stepped onto her first stage at the Old Academy Building when she was 11-years-old. Today, the theater is going strong, and its latest production — Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham’s “Something Intangible” —opened this weekend.
Nancy Frick, who has spent over 25 years as an Old Academy member and is now the director of “Something Intangible,” told NewsWorks this week that the group just celebrated its 90th birthday. As a teen, Grace Kelly performed in six plays with the group. Other famous alumni also include Robert Prosky (a Helen Hayes winner known for roles in “Mrs. Doubtfire” and TV’s “Hill Street Blues”), who acted in 10 Old Academy shows in the 1940s and 50s.
“Something Intangible” is fiction, but it’s inspired by the real-life story behind the movie “Fantasia,” the Disney film made in the late 1930s. The film itself, which features fanciful visual and animated landscapes paired with classics from Bach, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Shubert and more, has a special connection to the area: The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Conductor Leopold Stokowski, performed most of the music used in the movie.
In the play, which received its world premiere at Old City’s Arden Theatre in 2009, Graham tells a story modeled on the true-life inspirations and tribulations of Roy and Walt Disney. The script follows the wildly creative and ambitious Tony as he tries to convince his wary, business-minded brother Dale to take the leap on a revolutionary animated film just as World War II spreads across Europe.
Frick calls the play “a really meaningful story” with “terrific characters that you think about days later.” However, the show was a worthy challenge for the small community group to put together due to the high-tech audio-visual requirements and the plot’s tricky balance between fiction and non-fiction.
To prepare, the cast researched and discussed the true story at Disney surrounding the film, and watched Fantasia for themselves.
The Old Academy Players got its start in 1923, when they were known as the Moment Musical Club. For almost a decade, they were without a permanent home, but in 1932, the club got a chance to move into a historic East Falls fixture known as the Old Academy, which dates back to 1819 and over the years had served as a school house, community meeting place and public library.
“We’re one of the oldest theaters around — not the oldest, but we’re right up there,” said Frick, a former resident of East Falls who now lives in Plymouth Meeting and works as an advertising and marketing communications writer by day. “It’s a really, really special place.”
Frick, who does not have a formal theater background, got started with the Players doing small jobs backstage.
“That’s a great thing about community theater,” she said. “Anyone can become a part of it because they want to…the Old Academy is great for that.”
She found a lifelong love backstage, and went on to become a playwright herself, with one play published and several others produced at theaters around the country.
At the Old Academy, she likes to look for character-centered, story-driven plays that “have a lot to say.” Frick said that “Something Intangible,” the sixth play the Old Academy Players have mounted by local writer Bruce Graham, fit the bill perfectly.
The Old Academy Building is intimate, with just over 100 seats in the house, and a decades-long tradition of providing free refreshments at intermission.
The Old Academy Players’ “Something Intangible,” written by Bruce Graham and directed by Nancy Frick, is running from Jan. 10 through Jan. 26. For tickets ($15) and more information, call the box office at (215) 843-1109 or visit the Old Academy Players’ website. Tickets will also be available for sale at the door.