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June 4, 2004

They're Actors! They're Producers! They're Philadelphia!

By Christopher Sapienza
Philadelphia Liaison Committee

1812 Pine Street. That's where it all started. Two University of the Arts graduates sharing an apartment, trying to make it as actors in Philadelphia. Who knew it would lead to this?

That was back in 1991. "The apartment was enormous and the rent was cheap—the perfect artist's flophouse," says Jennifer Childs, Artistic Director of 1812. "Over the five years we lived there we probably had about 25 different roommates-—actors, sculptors, painters, musicians, filmmakers, dancers, bartenders and the occasional German tourist. We (the other half of 'we' is Pete Pryor, Producing Artistic Director) like to say it was the most wonderful awful place we've ever lived. It was a place where we remember laughing a lot."

It was in 1998 that the laughter shared within the walls of that bohemian house would emerge to fill the Arcadia Stage at The Arden with their premier production of The Complete Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged).

"The first two years we only produced one show a year. We wanted to be able to take the time to learn how to produce and really do it right before we committed ourselves to a full season," explains Pryor. "The third year we produced two shows, our fourth year we moved to a three show season, and next year (our eighth season) we'll produce four. We started out with a Guest Artist contract and worked our way to various stages of the Small Professional Theatre Contract from there. We are currently operating under an Equity SPT8. But the whole cast for the current show is Equity. Jen and I are both in the union, and regardless of the production, we always make or exceed the Equity requirements and one day hope to move up to a Letter of Agreement."

Within the first seven seasons, 1812 has gained great recognition within the theatre community as it received both countless Barrymore nominations and awards, as well as being cited as one of the "Best of…" by Philadelphia Magazine.

Actors to Producers

Going from actor to producer is not something you hear of much in town. Jen and Pete's decision to take on such a transition seemed to come out of a desire to have more control over their careers.

"Control was a part of it," states Pryor. "As actors you are constantly saying things like, 'Wow, I've always wanted to do this play. I hope that director casts me.' We wanted to be able to say, 'We've always wanted to do this play. Let's do it.'"

Childs goes on to say that comedy and laughter are vital parts of who they are. "And there was no place in town that was committed solely to exploring what comedy can do. I believe that laughter is a great learning tool. When people are laughing they are open and ready to receive and engage. We wanted a forum where we could experiment and celebrate and bring that kind of joy."

Their mission is: (1) Entertaining, educating and exploring a variety of issues through comedy; (2) Hiring and supporting local artists, and (3) Making the end-product accessible to the audience.

Pete goes on to say, "Philadelphia has an amazing theatre community. There are people who have made the choice to stay here, work here and make good art here." Jen adds, "We want to invest in them—provide them with work that is fun and challenging and that pays. Also, I find the work is much richer and deeper when you're working with a group of people that have a relationship already."

We, as a theatre community, have seen the market increase in Philadelphia. More companies are being developed and are looking to the local actors to cover the roles, rather than 'job in' someone from New York. "There is now a good diversity in size of the companies and each company's programming and mission. Because of the community, new and exciting work is being fostered," says Pryor.

Hopes for the Future

When asked what their hopes were for the future of theatre in Philadelphia as actors and producers, they told me, "More new work. For Philly to be seen as a great place to develop material. More physical theatre space. Especially, one brand new 250-seat flexible theatre with attached offices, rehearsal space, shop and storage space for 1812 Productions."

And what words of advice might you have for those interested in sharing this journey you both have taken? "Write everything down," Jen says. "Accept help from everyone who offers. Pay your artists and yourself even if it's a small amount."

For their audiences, which cover a wide range, from students from South Philadelphia to retirees from the Mainline, Pryor says, "We want to challenge the way we define comedy and ourselves. And to continue to share different styles and forms of comedy with them."

I told Pete and Jen that they should be proud of becoming a stronghold in the theatre community of Philadelphia. Pete jokingly replies, "It feels more like a toehold. But that's very flattering. Somewhere in the last two years we've gone from being the biggest of the small theatres to being the smallest of the big. We are still growing and learning and have many plans for growth in the future. That said, we're very proud of where we are. We've survived and continue to produce in this economy, which in itself is a feat."

From a "flophouse" to a theatrical house, 1812 Productions has come a long way. Jen and Pete have taken the laughter that once inspired them to a place that can help inspire so many others. They came back to Philly to work; now they're hiring local actors themselves. Now that says Philadelphia to me.

So the next time you walk past 1812 Pine Street, be sure to listen for the laughter.

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