A theater company in Philadelphia is about to fold, and it’s all according to plan.
The Orbiter 3 collective started three years ago and was designed to dissolve after seven productions. The seventh and final play, “A People,” opens this weekend.
Starting in 2015, five emerging playwrights in Philadelphia embarked on an experiment to produce their most difficult scripts — the ones no other theater company would touch — and do it with the best resources they could muster.
“The production quality of Orbiter 3 shows is pretty much possible because none of us get paid,” said Maura Krause, who, as the company’s artistic director, worked for free. “You get paid if you’re a playwright on the show, or if you contributed labor that would be paid.”
That means directors, stage managers, carpenters, and electricians, were paid, but the back-end administrative duties — such as marketing, development, and operations — were handled by unpaid collective members. Those members also contributed labor as needed, hauling staging platforms up three flights of stairs to the Prince Theater black box for “Moon Man Walk,” for example, or weaving textile trees for the forest in “Peaceable Kingdom” at Christ Church Neighborhood House.
In addition to writing plays, the collective — Krause, James Ijames, Emma Goidel, Emily Acker, Douglass Williams, and Mary Tuomanen — did a lot of painting, cleaning, carrying, sorting, hauling, and standing around waiting to be useful.
“We are not particularly skilled at technical labor,” said Kraus. “A lot of times, we are just hands and bodies.”
The hired actors and artisans were paid mostly through fundraising. The collective was able to attract attention from both arts foundations and an adventurous public: before the first curtain went up in 2015, Orbiter 3 had 200 subscribers.
In the long haul, this was not a sustainable business model. That’s the point. The collective programmed their own termination at the outset so they could run the company like they were running a race, prepared to make any sacrifice with the finish line in sight.
“It was definitely a sprint,” said Krause. “Maybe a marathon, but we knew there was an end point.”
Over the course of its three years, Orbiter 3 picked up two more playwrights, Sam Henderson and Lauren “L.” Feldman, who wrote the seventh and final play, “A People.”
The play skips around 3,000 years of Jewish history through a contemporary lens as modern Jews, observant or not, grapple with their relationships to a religious heritage.
“How do we as contemporary folks relate to everything that came before us,” said Feldman, a queer woman who is on-again/off-again observant and has her own conflicts with Judaism. “What do we do in terms of responsibility, guilt, aspiration, the places where we are in conflict with the values that shaped our heritage?”
There is no central narrative to “A People.” Feldman has written a mosaic of short, disjointed stories connected by questions, not characters. It replaces realism with a more fluid tapestry of ideas that jump and bend freely though space and time. Ancestors walk with their descendants.
“There are lots of impossible, magical moments that happen, that enable conversations that would never happen in naturalism or realism,” she said.
Although the play is steeped in Judaism – it has an original score of live klezmer music by Daniel Perelstein and some lines are in Hebrew — Feldman insists it’s theme of people struggling to connect with their ancestors is universal.
The play is performed in St. Steven’s Episcopal Church, the same building occupied by Lantern Theater, in the back. “A People,” however, is performed in the front where the Episcopal congregation regularly worships.
Feldman isn’t bothered that images of Jesus Christ and the Christian saints in stained glass windows are plainly visible, looking down upon her contemporary Jewish play.
“It feels like a place of worship and faith; a place people came to build something beautiful to connect to something greater than themselves,” she said. “That feels fitting to the play.”
Feldman wrote this play ten years ago, and it has never before been produced, mostly because it requires a cast of 10 players and its structure is complex. “It’s nutty to read. It’s big and weird and formally not traditional,” she said.
That makes it perfect for the Orbiter 3 experiment, which puts playwrights on a high pedestal.
“‘A People’ is doing what Oribter 3 is trying to do,” said Kruase. “All these new-play institutions that came before us, we love them. We honor them. We grew within them. But we want to try something different, a new structure that’s full of risk. As a collective we’re grappling with the same questions the play asks.”
After “A People.” closes, Orbiter 3 will itself close. The collective will share all of its notes, data, and documentation publicly (although still unsure exactly how to do that) so other art collectives and theater companies can learn from their successes and mistakes.