Troupe beats bankruptcy with fresh fare

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Theater Company is one of those little-engine-that-could stories.

Poised to occupy its almost completed $22 million, 365-seat new home in October, PTC has made a remarkable recovery from bankruptcy in 1989, when the troupe had to cancel its entire season.

Sixteen years ago, veteran producing artistic director Sara Garonzik took PTC’s financial matters in hand and not only brought the troupe back from bankruptcy but pushed the company to national prominence, producing and shepherding new plays by prestigious American playwrights to New York and the regional circuit.

PTC’s annual revenues have climbed steadily over the past decade, from $859,174 in the 1994-95 season to north of $3.5 million for each of the last two seasons.

Next month, two PTC premieres will open in Gotham: Terrence McNally’s “Some Men” (newly revised since its Philly debut last season), at Second Stage, and Christopher Durang and Peter Melnick’s “Adrift in Macao,” at Primary Stages.

Other works launched by the company include Bruce Graham’s “According to Goldman,” four Jeffrey Hatcher plays including “A Picasso,” and McNally’s “Master Class,” which premiered at PTC in 1995 with Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald.

New American work has been PTC’s mission from the start, and commissioning new works is crucial.

“We need to invest in American theater — to give playwrights more reason to write for the stage and not for TV,” Garonzik says. To this end, the a.d. also has worked aggressively to attract name actors to Philadelphia, which is one way she pulled PTC out of debt in 1990, snagging Celeste Holm to star in “The Cocktail Hour,” and Zach Grenier in “Speed-the-Plow.”

Bill Irwin is workshopping a new project for PTC with the assistance of local talent. “It’s sui generis,” Garonzik says of the untitled piece. “We don’t know where it’s headed, but there’s a big, jolly mix of people helping him find the story.”

Irwin’s first PTC production was “Trumbo” — an odd choice of roles, keeping this most physical of actors immobilized behind a desk. But the actor was eager to come back. When he is working in Philly, Garonzik notes, he goes to all the shows and meets all the actors over lunch.

PTC had long outgrown its rented quarters in the small, uncomfortable jewel-box Plays & Players Theater, built in 1919. Despite its charm, the venue lacks wing space, lobby space and rehearsal space. When an unusual opportunity presented itself five years ago on the Avenue of the Arts, PTC was ready.

A city-owned parcel of land was being developed for a 31-story condo building, Symphony House. The city required a cultural component for the high-rise, a requirement satisfied with the construction within the building of the PTC’s Suzanne Roberts Theater (a gift from Comcast chairman Ralph Roberts to his wife — a kind of theatrical Taj Mahal). Richard Maimon, from KieranTimberlake Associates, is the architect.

The theater company will have more space while preserving the intimacy of its old home. A second stage will allow PTC to showcase smaller productions. The new site also provides rehearsal space which, formerly, shows had to go to New York to find. There’s also “real wing space and fabulous fly space,” says Garonzik. She insisted on a proscenium: “I love the tension created by having to design for the proscenium context instead of some big undefined space.”

Mindful of a three-story glass front facing the city’s Avenue of the Arts (aka Broad Street), Garonzik plans plasma screens instead of posters, indoor art installations to be visible from the street and a real sense of occasion, of “nighttime glamor.”

PTC’s next show is the new tuner “Nerds://A Musical Software Satire,” part of the “Philadelphia New Play Festival: Where Theater Begins,” running Feb. 8-18. Nine theater companies will present world premieres, alongside various symposia, panel discussions and free readings.

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