For six years of his life, Passyunk Square’s Brian Abernathy was a self-described “No. 2” to 1st District Councilman Frank DiCicco. Many area residents may know him in that role of the former politician’s director of policy and legislative aid, but what many do not know is that prior to a career in Philadelphia politics, Abernathy was a theater professional.
“I’m one of the few [Arden Theatre Co.] apprentices not still working in theater,” Abernathy said of a position he moved to Philadelphia to take in 2000. “But it taught me life skills and professional development. It shaped how I approach my job and future jobs, being able to understand the people and manage what they do on a daily basis.”
Chief of staff to the City’s Managing Director Richard Negrin, Abernathy has added another title to his résumé — one that is in line with both of his passions.
“I joined the [Arden’s] board in 2006 and I’ve stayed active on the board since then. Because of government connections I can help with advocacy locally and on the state level,” Abernathy, who resides at 12th and Tasker streets with wife Elizabeth and their two daughters, said. “I was the vice chair of board for the development committee. And finally, I’m president this year. I was surprised and honored by this.”
As the newly inaugurated president, Abernathy will helm the reigns in a time of growth and expansion for the Arden.
“It’s an exciting time at the Arden since we recently purchased a building a couple doors north. It will be the Hamilton Family Arts and Education Center,” Abernathy said. “That will allow us to really take what we’ve done with children’s theater and educational programs and expand.”
The new building — which Abernathy has been charged with making a reality — will be home to seven classrooms, a rehearsal hall and an 80-seat theater by next year. The $5.8 million undertaking is just kicking off.
“We have not announced the public fundraising campaign, yet. We have been doing individual asks at this point. Concentrating on big donors first and then we will launch the public campaign some time in the fall,” he said. “It will be completed next year.”
Being charged with making the project happen “on time and on budget,” Abernathy said he is honored his fellow board members — many of whom were already sitting members when he joined the Arden family as an apprentice 12 years ago — gave him the task.
“It meant a lot to know the founders had trust in me to lead the organization and our visions matched for the organization. I’ve turned to a lot folks for advice on the board and that they trust and believe in what I could bring all meant a tremendous amount,” he said.
Abernathy spent his childhood moving from state to state, everywhere from Arkansas to New Mexico. Following a college education in political science and theater at South Carolina’s Coker College, Abernathy assessed his next move.
“My goal as a young and idealistic person was to use theater as a means for political discourse,” Abernathy said. “I saw art as a way to challenge people to see what you could do politically.”
This unique approach brought Abernathy to a think tank in Washington, D.C. The timing, which was a few years after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, was a frenzied one for Capitol Hill professionals, and Abernathy was hired to see if theater could play a part in the Jewish-Arab conversation.
Though he dismisses his time in the nation’s capitol as not his best work, he was soon taken on as an apprentice in Philadelphia.
“The Arden gives you knowledge on how all [of the components] work together to run a company,” he said. “Amy [Murphy], Aaron [Posner] and Terry [Nolan], the three founders, taught me how to set a goal and follow through on a project — on time and on budget — and to overcome any unforeseen obstacles.”
Abernathy spent his apprenticeship doing everything from fundraising to lighting to marketing. At the end, he was offered two very different positions — master electrician or a grant writing associate. His decision, it would seem, shaped the rest of his professional choices.
“I chose grant writing and it was a good choice. I stayed for a year and left to work [in politics],” he said. “My original goal was to write and direct my own theater company, but I quickly realized I may not be best suited [for that role].”
Politics, however, suited him nicely, and Abernathy has spent more than a decade running staff and problem-solving for multiple leaders in the city.
“I found peace in it. It would be a lie if I said I don’t miss the creative aspect of the theater at times. To create an entire society from nothing is fascinating to watch. Something about it that is different than watching a film or going to see a painting,” he said. “I do feel like I can make a difference in what I am doing now.
“The commercial demands [of a theater] are hard to manage. I don’t think it’s in my makeup to push and stretch the way [the Arden founders] have. But there is creativity in both theater and government. They are about solving problems. It’s just a matter of scale and how it affects people. It’s what I like to do and what I’m good at.”
The Arden board seems to agree, which is why, moving into its 25th anniversary season and looking at a massive fundraising and construction project, its members have put Abernathy at the helm. Luckily, he feels right at home.
“There’s a lot of theaters that come and go,” Abernathy, who also serves as board chairman for Animal Care and Control Team, said. “For the Arden to grow as quickly as it did — with the management style and staff at the Arden, and the consistency that the Arden has had, and the dedication to hiring artists is second to none. At the time the Arden opened, you couldn’t hire Philadelphia actors for every performance. The pool wasn’t there.
“They helped foster a culture in Philadelphia that allows actors and artists to live and raise a family.”
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