There once was a time when the Philadelphia theatre scene was as sleepy as can be. Just 90 miles from New York theatre, audiences were content to wait for a Broadway out-of-town tryout or to take in the occasional show at the Walnut Street Theatre.
But that hasn’t been true for years. With over 160 theatre companies, acting companies, collectives and producers, the Philly scene couldn’t be more happening. The 2019-2020 season was a natural outgrowth of our city’s theatrical vibrancy and its growing love for its own dramatists.
People have been referring to it as the “World Premiere Season,” because nearly 30 brand new plays by Philadelphia dramatists opened or were scheduled to open. Almost everyone seemed to be getting into the act including nationally recognized theatres such as the Wilma Theater and the Arden Theatre Company. But as usual, it’s the scrappy theatre companies where the real action is.
Some cities might consider self-productions to be “vanity productions”. Here in Philly, self-producing isn’t just welcomed, it’s expected. Philadelphia playwrights earn “street cred” by taking their own shows to the Philadelphia Fringe Festival or Free Fringe Philly. They also start theatre companies or collectives such as Power Street Theatre, Paper Doll Ensemble, Sewer Rats, and Orbiter 3 to ensure that their work goes public.
Well-regarded theatre companies such as 1812 Productions, and Azuka and Simpatico Theatres all got their start as one-offs. The people behind these theatre companies, Jennifer Childs, Kevin Glaccum, and Allison Heishman simply decided their work couldn’t wait to be discovered and built the theatre scene they wanted from the ground up.
The scrappiness of Philadelphia playwrights pays off in other ways. Three Philly playwrights whose productions are listed here made this year’s Kilroys List. Lorene Cary (My General Tubman), JACQUELINE GOLDFINGER (Babel), and Stephanie Kyung Sung Walters (Esther Choi and the Fish that Drowned) have all received national recognition because they didn’t sit around and wait to be discovered by someone else.
Philadelphia’s World Premiere Season – like all theatre seasons – has been cut short by the corona virus, but its spunky can-do spirit lives on. There were four more world premieres were scheduled for May 2020 alone: Steal Her Bones by Thomas Gibbons at InterAct Theatre Company; The Funeral by Derrell Lawrence at Lawrence Theatre Company; a new musical play, Bayard Rushton: Inside Ashland by Steve H. Broadman III at People’s Light in Philly; and Kill Keller by Paul Hood at Narçisse Theatre Company in Harrisburg. Plans are already afoot to move all these plays to next season along with all the other shows that had to be postponed.
Philadelphia theatre artists are proud of the fact than our 2019-2020 World Premiere Season sprang up organically, and we’re hopeful that it will be the first of many.