When we talked about doing something that was not Broadway related this week, the idea to talk about my local theatre scene came to me in an instant. Philadelphia is one of the best areas to see theatre because there is so much rich history surrounding the city. The tours come through here, the Pennsylvania Ballet uses the Academy and the orchestra is housed at the same building. Philadelphia is a city that is abundant in both culture and history of theatre.
1. The Walnut Street Theatre has the title of the Oldest Theatre in America, founded in 1809. This theatre is the State Theatre of Pennsylvania and is a national landmark. Every season, 50,000 ticket holders subscribe to the Walnut, making it the most subscribed theatre in the world. A few years after opening, an 80-foot dome was added to the theatre, making the building the tallest in Philadelphia for that time. The Walnut Street Theatre is not only a performance space, but it also serves as a school and a summer camp. The classes started in 1984, and since then have been regarded as the most popular and vital training ground in the Delaware Valley. What sets the Walnut training apart is that it offers classes for children, teens and adults of all different skill levels and the classes are available in the evening and on the weekends. Camp Walnut is for ages 8-18 years with three divisions: Discovery Division- for the beginning performer, Development Division- for the intermediate performer, and Performance Division- for the advanced student.
I had the pleasure of being a student at both the theatre school and the theatre camp when I was a teenager and a young adult. As far as the classes go, students will expand their knowledge of theatre through performance and interacting with both students and instructors. When I was a teenager I was in the musical theatre classes. It was here that I started working with the smaller group on numbers for the end of the semester showcase; it was in this class that I started working on duets. The adult classes also have different divisions. I have taken both the intermediate and the advanced classes. Having the opportunity to perform a group number helps because you get the interaction with other talented artists, making you a better actor in the process. As an adult student, you decide on a song to work on over the class session, one that may be in your repertoire that you wish to master or one suggested by the instructor. The adult students also have a showcase at the end of every session. At the camp, I was a student in the performance division for two summers. The education I received at Camp Walnut helped shape me as a performer through rehearsing and performing a junior show at the end of the summer.
2. The Academy of Music first opened the doors as a theatre and concert venue in 1857. The Academy is the oldest opera house in America, but is used for so much more than just a place to see an operatic piece. Today, this building is still regarded as a go-to place for the theatre—everything from the classical repertoire to works created in the 21st century. A theatre for orchestral music as well, it was the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1900-2001. The Philadelphia Orchestra, Opera Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Ballet all use the venue; however, not a single dollar from the sales goes to the upkeep of this building. The only way the Academy obtains money for this fantastic but aging building is from their annual anniversary concert and ball, and the Restoration and Preservation Fund Annual Giving Campaign.
I have seen various ballets, musicals and concerts at the Academy and every time I am there, I am more impressed by the theatre. Most seats offer great viewing, from the orchestra to the upper levels, in spite of the age of its interior design. I am always impressed by the architecture of the building; I can’t believe how old the building is because they have done a great job of keeping the area so revived. I find it amazing that the Academy stage can accommodate many contrasting productions; for example, The Nutcracker will use the stage differently than a musical tour.
3. The Wilma Theatre (originally called the Wilma Project) was established in 1973, more than 100 years after the Walnut Street Theatre and the Academy of Music. From 1973-1979 the Wilma served as a space for the more avante garde theatre artists. In 1979, Blanka and Jiri Zizka, natives of Czechoslovakia, became the artists in residence at the theatre, bringing innovative pieces to the Philadelphia audience. During the Zizkas' time as artistic directors, the Wilma Theatre has established a national reputation for provocative work ranging from the international drama of Bertolt Brecht, Athol Fugard, Eugène Ionesco, Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard to new American plays by Tina Howe, Romulus Linney, Quincy Long, Doug Wright, Amy Freed and many others, as well as premiering Jiri Zizka's original adaptations of classic novels. After each production, the Wilma offers free or low-cost discussions on topics that are relevant to the play you have just seen. The theatre offers ticket deals for students on Sundays for as little as $10, as well as offering fellowship and internship programs for budding actors.
I hope this gave you a look at some of the amazing theatre that awaits you in Philadelphia. Have you thought about how your local city could bring productions of Broadway quality?
(Image: Exterior, 1900 Photo from the Walnut Street Theatre website.)