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Making Plays in Philly

A Philadelphia theatre company renews its commitment to new work

Over the past year, more and more theatres in Philadelphia have tightened their belts, with co-productions between major companies becoming more common and staffs being pruned. For fans of new plays, this trend is especially dire, since a tough economy can make an unproven script seem like an untenable risk.

It’s especially notable, then, that Philadelphia Theatre Company is celebrating its 35th season by reenergizing its commitment to new plays. PTC@Play, a staged reading festival for new works, is running now through the end of the month.

New play development is genetic to PTC, whose infancy in the 1970s coincided with the wild and woolly first nationwide efforts to support new writers on an institutional level. Sara Garonzik, who has been the company’s artistic director since 1982, remembers those early days, when PTC was still searching for a home.

“’Peripatetic,’ is that the word?” she asks. It is, and it’s apt. Garonzik became aware of Philadelphia’s fledgling new play movement in the early ‘70s, when a local theatre professor named Bob Hedley began staging student work in the city. The productions were quick and dirty, popping up in whatever space could host them. In 1974, Hedley soldified his efforts by founding PTC, which supported new work while producing classics like The Adding Machine. Importantly, that was when the company founded Stages, a new writers program that has existed in some form ever since.

Initially, Stages paired young scribes with established writers like Arthur Kopit, who guided their apprentices through early drafts, revisions, and staged readings. Those opportunities are fairly commonplace now—consider the mentorship program at The Cherry Lane or any number of MFA playwriting programs—but back in the 70s, they were rare.

Unfortunately, budgetary issues eventually forced the Stages program to replace its full battery of support with a handful of readings a year, and the company had to re-hang its hat on more profitable measures like building a state-of-the-art performance space on Broad Street, Philadelphia’s main drag.

In the past three years, however, newly-arrived PTC dramaturg and literary manager Jacqueline Goldfinger has worked with Garoznik to revitalize Stages. The amount of readings has risen, and the audience’s responses and interactions have become central to the process—an emphasis that hasn’t existed since Hedley started the company.

The PTC@Play Festival is PTC’s latest step in invigorating their process, taking the development work they’ve done recently and magnifying it in the laboratory-like setting of a festival. The play selection process is informed by the company’s sensitivity to its past and future: The writers chosen for the fest have either been affiliated with PTC in some way previously or are new voices that’ve caught the company’s attention.

Festival directors and writers have been in conversation with Goldfinger over the past few months, starting a feedback process that has allowed the invited playwrights to produce new drafts of their scripts in preparation for the fest. (Each play gets a full day’s rehearsal before an audience comes in at 7 p.m. to hear what’s being offered.)

Broadway veteran Theresa Rebeck, who went through the company’s initial apprenticeship program when she was fresh out of Brandeis, has been working on her new play What We’re Up Against, a look at workplace challenges for the modern female. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Hatcher, who has had four plays world premiere at PTC, is working on his new drama Strongman’s Ghost. Moises Kaufman’s Tectonic Theatre Project, which had success at PTC with productions of The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, returns with Casa Cushman, about the remarkable life of a famous American actress. Rounding out the slate are new plays by emerging writers Kirsten Greenidge and Bill Cain.

This festival alone can’t solve all of Philly’s woes, but ideally, it will serve as a rallying point for a city that has a history of embracing new playwrights. Ideally, echoes of the peripatetic past will resonate within new projects for the future.

For information about dates and times of the readings, please go here. All readings are presented free of charge, but PTC advises that you call or email to secure a seat.

Mark Costello is a playwright, director, and dramaturg in the Philadelphia area. You can follow him at twitter.com/markjcostello

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