Philadelphia Theatre Company hires resident artist to help chart its future

Director/choreographer Jeffrey L. Page will join the Philadelphia Theatre Company as a resident artist, beginning in September. (Courtesy of the Philadelphia Theatre Company)

Director/choreographer Jeffrey L. Page will join the Philadelphia Theatre Company as a resident artist, beginning in September. (Courtesy of the Philadelphia Theatre Company)

The Philadelphia Theatre Company is hiring a resident artist to help deepen the diversity of its future programming.

The new position comes a year after the company received an open letter complaining about the theater’s “all-white seasons.”

Jeffrey Page is a New York-based director and choreographer whose work spans from pop to classical opera. He has won awards and recognition for his work with Beyonce and the TV competition show “So You Think You Can Dance.” He was also the first African American to be named the Marcus Institute Fellow for Opera Directing at the Juilliard School.

He calls himself a cultural anthropologist, using his creative process to address social concerns around race, and connect cultural institutions with communities that might feel alienated from them.

“It’s my belief that we need to lean into more difficult areas of conversation in order to unearth the magic that is there,” he said. “We have to lean into what’s uncomfortable.”

Raised in Indianapolis, Page first came to Philadelphia in 1998 to attend the University of the Arts as a dancer. He graduated in 2002. During that time he explored the neighborhoods of the city and its cultural offerings.

He recalled regularly going to the Five Spot, a now-closed jazz venue in Old City that hosted Black Lily every Tuesday night, a showcase of Black women performers.

“I saw Jasmine Sullivan, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, jazzyfatnastees,” Page recalled. “Philadelphia made me understand what it meant to be a grown-up.”

After graduating he went to Los Angeles to pursue choreography. He later went to Columbia University for grad school to study directing, where he met Paige Price, the producing artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Company. She was there to speak to a class about the theater industry.

“When I first met him, he pushed back on things I was saying,” recalled Price. “We subsequently met afterward to continue those conversations. They were about race, and its relationship to art and community. I was compelled by his honesty and candor and kindness. I also think he’s unbelievably talented.”

In April 2019, the Philadelphia Theatre Company received an open letter signed by 19 theater artists who were “infuriated and exhausted” by its announcement of a season of three plays for the 2019-2020 season, all written by white playwrights.

The letter prompted Price to invite the authors of the letter into a meeting to talk about expanding opportunities for theater artists, both on and off the stage.

“I didn’t disagree with the sentiments in that letter,” she said. “No one ever moves fast enough, I would agree.”

Right now, like all theater companies, PTC has closed its curtains due to the coronavirus pandemic. The theater has had its financial problems, nearly losing its space to foreclosure in 2014 and stepping back from producing work three years ago, so creating a new staff position was not taken lightly. Nevertheless, Price pushed to get Page in as a resident artist.

“I’ve been looking for an opportunity to bring him into the organization as a colleague so that there are more voices in the planning of the season, in the articulation of our mission as we move forward,” she said.

When Page learned that theater artists collectively complained about what they saw as a lack of diversity at Philadelphia Theatre Company, it did not surprise him.

“I’m not shocked. It sounds like every regional theater in this country,” Page said. “In what we consider equity houses, the conversation occludes Black people. It occludes people who look like me. I would have to agree with a letter like that.”

In addition to being part of the season’s programming and outreach to Philadelphia audiences, Page will also be involved with the revival of the Terrence McNally Award, a new play-development award that comes with a $10,000 prize.

The award was created by the Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2011. The company has had a long, collaborative relationship with playwright Terrence McNally, known for his themes of LBGTQ identity and social justice – but the award has faded away over the last few years.

The revived award will select a Philadelphia-area playwright with a script in progress, and assist with developing it into a completed work.

The award is aligned with the company’s ambitions during the pandemic lockdown: as the theater is closed to the public, rather than find ways to put existing work online for audiences, Price said she is putting more time and energy into making sure new plays will be written and ready with the lights come back on.

“We really wanted to develop more new work, and this seemed like a great way of honoring the past and bringing in new voices,” she said.

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