Quintessence Theatre Group returns to Mt. Airy

The Quintessence Theatre Company marks their return to the Sedgwick Theatre in Mt .Airy with a second season featuring four productions beginning this October. Citing the Sedgwick’s space, community support and the desire to build a home base as key reasons for remaining in the neighborhood, Quintessence’s associate artistic director, Pamela Reichen also stated that until just last month the fledgling company’s return to Germantown Avenue “was in doubt for awhile.”

The current US economy has played a large factor in the uncertainty, to which Reichen acknowledged, “Any arts organization right now is struggling.” Lack of funding is one thing Quintessence has had to contend with. “We’re still at that very young business age where we’re not eligible for any of the large grants yet.” revealed Reichen.


First season:  The good and the bad 

However, Quintessence was able to draw on successful first season ticket sales and continued support from the Sedgwick’s owners, David and Betty Ann Fellner. They’ve also been able to rely on a scrappy the-show-must-go-on spirit, like when the Sedgwick experienced a loss of power during the final preview of Molière’s Don Juan last winter. “Our lighting designer scoured all over town to find some generators and twelve-hundred feet of extension cords and we just ran the show off of that until the power came back.” recalled Reichen. Despite that obstacle and a negative review in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Don Juan went on to generate Quintessence’s biggest ticket sales.


Second season: Developing an identity

The company’s ability to overcome adversity definitely influenced the production choices for the coming second season. “We wanted to make sure that the shows we picked were full of young characters that were taking on the world with great audacity.” explained Quintessence’s artistic director, Alex Burns. Burns presumptuously stated that the theater group will continue to present adaptations of classic plays that he believes “will be shockingly current” in the hopes of developing the company’s signature style.

Last season, Quintessence performed Neil Bartlett’s 2004 translation of Molière’s Don Juan, filled with modern colloquialisms, in an attempt to illustrate how the themes of class, morality and accountability for one’s actions still resonate in present-day life. “Our mission as a company is to take these classics and put them to a contemporary stage,” Burns expounded, “then transform the play for the audience so then they go, ‘Oh right, that’s what Quintessence does. That’s amazing!’ “

In Quintessence’s production of Don Juan, such bold vision was still finding its way to its mark due to some unsuccessful attempts at thick Philly accents and ambiguous costumes that failed to fully thrust the play into 2011. Despite such creative setbacks, the budding theater group continues to ardently strive towards bringing a fresh and modern twist to age-old classics.


Two plays at once

Other developments for the new season include the introduction of repertory for two of plays. For those who are not familiar with the term, repertory is one ensemble of actors performing two or three concurrently running productions. “We’re doing that with The Merchant of Venice and the Venetian Twins – so we’ll have twelve actors who are going back and forth between the two shows.” Burns elaborated. “Repertory is a huge part of what we want to become as a company, so it was really important for us to push that into the season.” Reichen said. Burns agreed, “It is part of our mission to be a repertory theatre, so we’re introducing it now with just the two shows in the hopes that in the future we’ll do three or a whole season!”


The actors

Several actors from last season will be returning, such as Jessica Dal Canton, Sean Bradley, Ken Sandberg and Josh Carpenter. “Part of our goal through the long term is to build a repertory of actors who are the familiar Quintessence actors. So we are definitely starting that already,” Reichen explained and continued, “There will be a lot of familiar faces. There will also be a lot of new faces.” The young company auditions actors in Philadelphia in search for great new talent as well as reaching out to actors they’ve worked with before coming to Mt. Airy. “We’re always working to bring the best quality of actors to Mt. Airy.” Burns stated. Some of the company’s actors have been locals – Bethany Ditnes, Paul Hebron, and Robb Hutter are all Mt. Airy residents. “There are a lot of really talented people in this neighborhood!” Reichen exclaimed.


Paying the actors

The seriousness in which Quintessence treats its actors is a large part of the financial equation for the professional theater company. “The money is a huge issue. We pay all of our actors, so salary is primarily what we spend our money on.” Reichen disclosed. “We don’t ever offer a contract without knowing we can back it up.” she added. Quintessence also hopes to someday become a full Equity house. Equity is the theater union that enables its members to have the benefits of a full-time job. Concerns about finances did cause some worries about whether or not they would be able to finish the first season. “We had no idea when we went into it last year if we actually would be able to get to the end.” quipped Reichen.


The audience

Overwhelming support from the community was a huge part of the successful first season, with 40% percent of ticket sales belonging to Mt. Airy residents. Reichen explained that ticket sales from Chestnut Hill and Germantown “were not as high as we’d like them to be – so we’re going to work a lot on expanding our immediate outreach in those neighborhoods.” One such means of outreach is a new partnership with Awbury Arboretum on the border of Mt. Airy and Germantown. Quintessence will be teaching a ten week Shakespeare class for high school students at the park. Classes begin the middle of this month.


Learn about the plays

Another “community push”, as Reichen describes it, is the creation of the Quintessence Readers’ Group, an opportunity for people to come together two weeks prior to a show’s opening and read the play before seeing it performed to gain a better understanding of what it is about. “We definitely hope to keep building our audience.” Reichen stated.


The drama of reality

Being an integral part of a pioneering artistic movement in Mt. Airy, it is no coincidence that Quintessence chose Chekov’s The Seagull, a play which explores the challenges of being an artist, to wrap up their second season. “We totally think of ourselves as the next generation of professional theater artists here in Philadelphia.” explained Alex Burns. “There are a lot of obstacles now as the world seems to become more uncertain socially, politically and financially. We’re out there waving our banner as hard as we can to keep this thing going.” Pamela Reichen enthusiastically added, “The people who’ve really rallied around us – it’s something that makes us want for sure to stay!”


Quintessence 2011-2012 season:

The Venetian Twins by Carolo Goldoni; Translated by Ranjit Bolt

Oct 5-Nov 19, 2011 opening night: Oct 8


The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

Oct 12-Nov 20, 2011 opening night: Oct 21


Antigone by Sophocles; Adapted by Jean Anouilh

Feb 29-Mar 25 2012 opening night: Mar 3


The Seagull by Anton Chekov

May 9-Jun 3, 2012 opening night: May 12

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