Philadelphia Theatre Company: Ready, set, ‘Sweat’

Suli Holum (Jessie), Walter DeShields (Chris), Kittson O'Neill (Tracey),  Matteo Scammell (Jason) and Kimberly S. Fairbanks (Cynthia) for Philadelphia Theater Company’s Pennsylvania premiere of Sweat by Lynn Nottage.
Anthony Werhun

“It’s getting real, very real, finally.”

Philadelphia Theatre Company’s recently-minted producing artistic director Paige Price is talking, on Monday, from the stage of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on Broad Street, days before the opening of her first play. The regionally-themed production, “Sweat,” is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s story of Reading, PA, and its recent socio-economic downturn. The fact that it stars Philly actors is icing on the cake, and a long-term goal of Price: to work with Philly’s finest and be a part of this city’s flourishing theater scene, and the Avenue of the Arts.

Especially since this nearly didn’t happen.

“We were walking into something that needed immediate consideration and action,” said Price. “So we took serious steps.”

Price was acutely aware of what she was walking into when she took the job in early 2017. Philadelphia Theatre Company’s physical home since 2007, the Suzanne Roberts (named in honor of Comcast honcho Brian Roberts’ media personality  mom), had gone into foreclosure on its mortgage in 2014 with TD Bank, only to be pulled out of the muck in 2015, by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (with the aid and urging of area philanthropists led by new PTC board chair David L. Cohen, a senior executive VP at Comcast), buying back the building for $5 million and giving PTC five years to pay down the debt. “I learned during my interview process about the refinancing in-place and that we would have some balloon payments,” she said of a $1.8 million sum due by 2020. “I knew we owed some vendors and that we would have to satisfy them. (by 2017, PTC paid off $1 million in old vendor old debt). “I knew it would be a big job. Which is why we hit the reset button, paused the theater seasons, and took a year off – that’s virtually unheard of.”

Nobody — not Philadelphia Theatre Company board members, fellow theater artisans or audiences loved that PTC wasn’t producing a new, original theater season of shows. “I was not popular when I got here,” she laughed. “The audience really didn’t like us altering our model, which is why I’m pleased to be able to offer them a traditional season.“

Price had been through this before — an insolvent theater company when she held a similar role at Theatre Aspen in Colorado 11 years ago. Not only did she head a successful $2 million capital campaign to replace old tenting and pull the company out of debt, she won a national profile for her community theater and brought its revenue up by more than 125 percent. By taking PTC dark and in a non-producing capacity in June 2017, (save for rentals by outside companies), Paige helped wipe much of the company’s debts off the plate.

“We’re working with Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. to find a manageable plan. We’re not behind on any payments, which is great, and we learned, during that gap year, that there are other things our audience will come to here.” The Princess Concerts (which will return to PTC this season), along with a special cabaret performance with screen and stage legend, Kathleen Turner, were but two of the company’s off-season successes.

“We can modify our approach to not be in the hole, so to speak… more carefully budgeting, making realistic and conservative goals, and working like hell to exceed them.” One goal that Price is looking to bust open, with baby steps, is PTC’s subscriber base, a number that “we started small, and are now at 85 percent to our goal. Same with our corporate support goal, because of David L. Cohen, which has risen over 600 percent. David is a magician.”

Working like hell brings to mind the blue collar class heft of “Sweat,” and its tale of Reading’s industrial woes, and its clash of elders watching their worlds fall apart as factories close. The opioid epidemic, racism, blight and America’s saddest, ugliest sides are all part of Nottage’s staged morass. “We’re lucky that Lynns play came to us at this time, but we can take credit for programming it so close to the mid-term election cycle,” said Price, savvy to the currency of our socio-political present. “We’re the first theater in Pennsylvania to produce this. It’s a play about learning and having empathy for neighbors 45 miles away. That proximity adds impact.”

Along with seeing a handful of Philly actors in “Sweat,” Price reminds us that 7 of the 8 actors in the upcoming “A Dream is a Wish“ are from Philly. “In meeting the goal of working with Philly actors and local plays we’re doing pretty good.  And tickets are selling nicely. But don’t start popping the champagne corks, yet. Talk to me in June when this season is over.”

Sweat opens Oct. 12 and runs until-Nov. 14, at Philadelphia Theatre Company, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street,

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