For Roxborough native Sean Connolly, it all got started when a trip to an Edinburgh hotel room turned out to be much creepier than he bargained for.
Officially, the recent York College graduate and Alfred Hitchcock devotee is a history major, but he decided to give a campus play a shot and ended up participating in 14 shows before he received his degree. He also directed and produced a one-act play festival.
“I didn’t intend that when I started college, but it sort of transformed into a great passion in my life,” he said.
In September, Connolly and Chestnut Hill College senior Gabe Henninger will seize that passion with the debut of their Manayunk Theatre Company, mounting its first-ever show as part of this year’s Philly Fringe festival (Sept. 5 through 21).
“We realized that Manayunk really has no theater company…So we were like, this is the perfect place, it’s really a vibrant neighborhood, lots of young people, we live there, why not?” Connolly says.
Fear in Edinburgh
He got the idea for their first production when he attended last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival while visiting his sister in Scotland. With a plethora of shows vying for the public’s attention, he caught sight of a flyer for a world premiere called “Splatter,” by young British playwright Dale Pearson, himself a recent graduate of Newcastle University, who had actually written the play while he was still a student.
Intrigued, Connolly got a ticket for the show, whose three characters (a director who seems very, very nice and two actors) are rehearsing to shoot an Eastern European slasher film, but feel increasingly nervous as things get a little strange, and it seems increasingly unlikely that the production crew is going to show up.
“This one was really bizarre,” Connolly remembers. It was staged in an actual hotel room, “so there was only room for about 10 or 12 people, and it was so creepy and so weird. I was like, this is great, this is awesome.”
After the show, he introduced himself to the artists and got the playwright’s information.
“I never get scared watching theater, but I was actually scared watching your play,” Connolly, a longtime fan of psychological thrillers, told the Edinburgh artists. Last January, Manayunk Theatre Company got its official launch when it secured the rights for “Splatter’s” U.S. premiere.
Thomas Jefferson and zombies
When he’s not working on the Manayunk Theatre Company debut, Connolly’s doing a good job of mixing his passions for theater and history by playing Thomas Jefferson on the popular Independence After Hours tour in Old City.
On his own time, “I like zombies a lot,” but he also likes the antithesis of watching zombies: “Getting inside someone’s mind and figuring out what they’re thinking.”
“I should say, it all has to do with pigs as well,” he said ominously of his show.
If pig masks make you nervous, stay away.
The Manayunk premiere was funded via a Kickstarter campaign, though it’s still a bare-bones show. Connolly, who is directing the performance, says the audience is going to be extremely close to the action in an unusual venue for horror film homage: St. David’s Episcopal Church on Dupont Street.
The perfect place
Connolly and Henninger originally looked into staging their play in one of the old abandoned factories by the river, but the paperwork and insurance involved proved prohibitive. Then they began looking at old churches in the neighborhood.
“We lucked out that we went to St. David’s,” Connolly said, where the curator took the guys down to the basement.
“They had these amazing huge cement pillars that sort of formed the whole length of the church. It was a really weird place certainly and really, really creepy.”
In other words, “absolutely perfect.”
Was it hard to get a church site onboard for a bit of theatrical horror?
Connolly was surprised when church staffers greenlit the venue for the Fringe, looking forward to the exposure of hosting the show.
The duo has high hopes for building some buzz in Manayunk and the surrounding area.
“Our main goal is to get people from Manayunk to come out,” Connolly said.
Manayunk Theatre Company’s “Splatter” ($10) is getting its U.S. debut as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and runs Sept. 5 through 14 at St. David’s Episcopal Church, 150 Dupont St.
Other Northwest Fringe shows
And it’s not the only option for Fringe Festival goers in the Northwest.
Audiences can catch three other shows in the first week of the Festival, including Greg Kennedy’s “Theorem” ($20), running at the Funicular Station at 416 W. Coulter St. in Germantown from Sept. 5 through 21.
The Cirque du Soleil alum and husband of aerialist and Philadelphia Circus Arts School founding director, Shana Kennedy, will offer a brand-new show of “modern manipulation,” featuring plenty of juggling and circus arts feats.
“Speed Dating TONIGHT!” from Michael Ching and Poor Richard’s Opera, which has appeared around the country, will also be stopping in the Northwest for the Fringe on Sept. 6 at Bourbon Blue, 2 Rector St. in Manayunk.
It’s a whirlwind 90-minute show that shows 25 characters colliding for three minutes at a time.
Finally, there’s “Kabbalah: the Musical!” ($15) from Shechinah, Inc, “a multidimensional, interactive piece based on Jewish esoteric traditions, yet open to all.” It’s happening Sept. 7 and 14 at P’nai Or Room Summit Church at 6767 Greene St. in Mt. Airy.
Stay tuned for a next week’s NewsWorks roundup of Fringe shows from Northwest artists happening in the second half of the festival.