Talking Stages – THE AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION

 

Theatre critics throughout the United States gathered in the friendly city of Philadelphia for their annual conference during April 6 – 10, 2016. This was a return visit for ATCA and the Dual Critics of Jacksonville’s Entertaining U, as Philadelphia was the site of a prior conference in 1999. With this year’s enthusiastic group, we attended productions at several of Philadelphia’s fabulous professional theatres, participated in workshops, and discussed the role and challenges of modern theatrical criticism in today’s world with producers and other theatre professionals.

Our opening reception was held at the Arden Theatre, now in its 29th season. We were treated to authentic Philly food, which of course included cheese steaks. A marvelous polished production of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” followed; the play, set in 1969, was written in 1990. When we were at the Arden at the 1999 conference we saw the Philly premiere of “Violet.”

On Thursday morning our host was the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, a huge modern downtown center for the performing arts which was under construction in 1999. Of note, the Kimmel is the curator for the 2016 Philadelphia International Festival of Arts, which features over 60 performances during April 8 – 23. For information about this massive undertaking, see pifa.org.

Thursday evening found us at a reception and play at Walnut Street Theatre, America’s oldest theatre. The rich history of this wonderful institution dates back to 1809 when it began as an equestrian circus. The theatre was once owned by Edwin Booth and later by the Shubert organization. And with over 55,000 season ticket holders, it reportedly has the largest subscriber base of theatres throughout the world. Along with a sellout crowd, we enjoyed the production of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which featured an excellent cast and a magnificent set.

Friday at noon we enjoyed a gourmet lunch at La Peg Restaurant, in a renovated historic building that is the home of FringeArts, and includes an adaptable 240-seat theatre space. FringeArts runs an annual city-wide Fringe Festival, and also supports year-round programming in the theatre. The lunch was co-sponsored by Stage and Stream and ATCA.

The theatre was the setting for workshops on three interesting topics. Stage and Stream representatives first discussed the future of Digital Theater. We heard from Ellen Krass, the producer of the digital theater version of “Gypsy,” which was filmed using over a dozen cameras, and we were shown a sampling of the high quality which is now possible with the use of modern technology. Susan Lee, founder of StageandStream.com, predicted that in the near future, movie theatres all over the county will be offering many great Broadway theater productions to patrons.

The second workshop was presented by Doug Reside from the archives division of the New York Public Library. He discussed the vast amount of material which is available to theatrical researchers, in both physical and digital formats, and encouraged us to use these resources.

Our final educational session was entitled “Trans Onstage: Critical Awareness,” and featured members of the LBGT community discussing issues related to industry conditions and stage performances.

Friday evening, we went to the new home of the InterAct Theatre Company, which is now in their 28th season. Their new space is in a building called The Drake, and is shared with several other professional resident companies. Their production of “The Nether,” a Sci-fi award-winning play by Jennifer Haley set in the near future, was thought-provoking, well staged and well acted. We recall going to Interact’s previous home during our past visit to see Israel Horovitz’s “Lebensraum.”

A Saturday morning membership meeting was followed by a matinee performance at the Wilma Theatre, located across the street from the Kimmel Center. The Wilma’s production of “An Octoroon, based loosely (very loosely) on an 1859 melodrama by Dion Boucicault, an Irish playwright, is imaginative and provocative theatre, concerning the dilemmas faced by a contemporary playwright and his characters, who are plantation dwellers in antebellum Louisiana. During this theatre year, the Wilma is offering tickets for $25, discounted to $10 for students and actors. We asked how this was possible in today’s economy, and were informed that they are the recipients of a grant which currently provides support for the initiative. Great idea!!

We closed out our theatre going with a reception at Philadelphia Theatre Company followed by “Sex with Strangers,” a very modern two-person play by Laura Eason. This theatre group, established in 1982, is in a new home as well. We recall seeing “The Beauty Queen of Leenane, one of our favorite plays, back in l999 at their previous much smaller location. This theatre specializes in producing regional and world premiers.

We often hear people say they are going to New York to see theatre and while NYC has a lot to offer, we are suggesting Philadelphia as an alternative. It is warm, friendly, clean, and affordable. You can check into a downtown hotel and walk to many theatres. If walking is not for you, a downtown shuttle bus runs to many locations, and other buses, trains, subways, and taxis with reasonable fares are also available. The productions we saw equaled – or exceeded – the quality of those found elsewhere, and as an additional bonus, the city is filled with rich historical offerings.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.