Transforming Philly ballroom into an all-hours theater haunt

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A week before two theater companies were to simultaneously christen downtown Philadelphia’s newest theater space with two new plays, workers were still busy finishing the building. Glaziers banged out glass panes from original art deco windows along Hicks Street in Center City.

Inexplicably, somebody decided at some time in the last half-century that it was a good idea to paint the glass black. With new, clear panes installed, the lobby is filled with natural light.

 

“This is something I’m been waiting for for many, many months,” said Seth Rozin, artistic director of Interact Theater and the visionary behind The Drake. What used to be an old ballroom attached to the Drake apartments, near 16th and Spruce streets, is being transformed into a creative hub for new theater. The lobby is a big part of that vision.

“I’ve always felt that when you go to a theater, the lobbies are nice. But when you go by during the day they are empty,” said Rozin. “For a lot of people, especially theater people looking for a place to sit, have a coffee, look at a computer, it felt like a natural thing to create a space that would be that all the time, not just during performances.”

It’s not a new idea. The Drake is right behind the Kimmel Center complex, which has a lobby designed to attract people inside, even when its theaters are dark.  It never worked out that way. Up the block is the Wilma Theater, which is about to invest millions into renovated its lobby on Broad Street to make it open to the public during off hours.

Rozin wants the lobby at the Drake to be an entre into a humming machine of creativity. He has invited four theater companies to be residents, guaranteeing them discounted theater space for three productions annually — two in the small black box theater (the flexible Luis Bluvar Theater) seating up to 80 people, and one on the main proscenium stage seating 120.

The rest of the time the theater will be rented to outside companies. During hours when performances are not happening, the all the space will be available for playwriting workshops and new play readings.

Before its official opening, the theater is already booked through July. “We haven’t started booking beyond August yet,” said Rozin, who is also planning a series of play readings in the space, produced with the Philadelphia New Play Initiative. Philly Plays at the Drake will feature local playwrights.

“It’s a signal to the both artistic community the public that this is what the building is about. It’s about celebrating new plays, a home for plays and playwrights, a place where artists come to talk about new plays, read, write, devise, and attend new plays.”

The five resident theater companies at the Drake (include Rozin’s Interact Theatre, the only one to have its administration offices onsite) were invited to join based on a common dedication to producing new work. Simpatico Theatre Project, Inis Nua, Azuka Theatre, and PlayPenn — a new play development organization that puts on an annual conference — are all small or mid-sized companies for whom it would be impossible to build theaters on their own.

“It’s rare we get the good toys,” said Allen Radway, artistic director of Simpatico Theatre Project, the first company to walk the new boards at the Drake with “The It Girl,” a new play about the life of silent film star Clara Bow involving complex sound cues and video projections. The Drake is outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment; it’s one of the only theaters in the region with an LED stage lighting system, which cuts down on energy and heat.

Together, the resident companies will share a box office, audiences, subscription packages, promotion, and overhead.

“There is strength in community,” said Allen Radway, “We all have a focus — in our own way — on new work. The Drake is going to become a destination for new work. Hopefully nationally, but certainly for regional playwrights, New York included.”

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