|20 Jun 2022|
|Context Winter 2021|
By Deborah Block, Producing Artistic Director, Theatre Exile
It was never my intention to build a theatre. In fact, it was never my intention to run a theatre. My goal was to create art that made a difference, through directing, teaching, and even dancing. But, things started one way… and then they changed. The same thing happened with Theatre Exile.
Theatre Exile was created in 1996 by a group of artists that set out to explore the complexities of the human condition. They had no specific home and were inspired by the grit and passion of Philadelphia. They sought to put the artist at the center of their art. They felt like they were rattling the gates of the mainstream and named themselves Theatre Exile.
Almost 10 years later, I joined the nomadic company as co-artistic director.
The desire to settle down was nowhere in the conversation in December 2008, when Exile signed a lease for an office with a small garage. We just needed a place to rehearse and build sets. The floor was uneven cement with divots that seemed impossible to fix. It was located on the southern edge of 19147; nowhere close to where any of the professional theatres were located. And yet, it would later become the location of our permanent home.
In 2010 Philadelphia theatre was thriving with over a hundred companies of a variety of sizes and working models. Finding performance venues was becoming harder and harder. We decided to take a risk and produce a show in our space. We changed the zoning for the building and in the fall, I directed Iron by Rona Munro for the Fringe Festival. It was a huge success and launched a scrappy new performance venue.
Three years later, I took on the role of Producing Artistic Director. We brought our education program into our neighborhood schools. We created a new play development program and not only were we using our venue at least once a year, we were renting it to other small companies. Things kept happening. We were doing free programs for kids in the park. The students from our education program were saying hi to me at the bus stop. The restaurants loved us. And even though some of our neighbors never walked into the space, folks in the Acme and the local diner always asked about our next show. One day in 2016 as I was coming out of the subway, I saw a small sign from the neighborhood business district directing travelers to Theatre Exile. We were part of the neighborhood.
And right after that…our building went up for sale.
We had options. We could go back to being nomads. We could find a home in Center City. We could even shut down. And while the board and I explored each of those options, I approached the new owners. They showed me the plans for their new building, and I asked them to consider a re-design. I explained that the majority of what a theatre does can be subterranean. They immediately recognized that in their new basement space, which others might find substandard, we could find a home.
Theatre Exile produces work that is daring, direct, engaging, sometimes bloody and definitely not for everyone — kind of like South Philly where we live. We had stopped talking about ourselves as an artist centered organization. We now talked about our community and what art did for our audiences. We valued theatre that made the audience think and feel. We would say that an Exile production isn’t over until the conversations happen in the bars and restaurants after the show. Art doesn’t change the world, but our audiences who see it will.
We had become a professional company that valued community and the diverse voices that form it. We decided to finally take the metaphor of Exile being on the edge of the theatre world and realize it physically by building a new performance space.
A board member introduced me to Cecil Baker. Cecil, in my opinion, is equal parts visual poet and architect. Through his vision and love of art, and the understanding of Theatre Exile, he created a perfect design. He and his team prioritized flexibility and a no-nonsense, rough-around-the-edges aesthetic. He embraced the descent into the theatre as an asset. To enter Theatre Exile is to dig deeper. He kept the roughness of poured concrete and used pipe and slate to establish our look. It was an intimate, flexible space that a small company could maintain over the years. It was a palette where art would be created, and ideas exchanged.
This was not what I thought Theatre Exile’s trajectory would bring. But making a difference in the world with art means connecting directly to our audiences. Philadelphia’s theatre scene is filled with companies of every shape and size. And while the large companies may be the backbone of the cultural community, the small companies that are talking directly to their audiences, are the heart of it.
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