Comprised of a bakery and playground, the corner of 13th and Reed streets seems like an ordinary South Philly thoroughfare.
Buried beneath the intersection, though, an innovative performance space has been brewing for the last two years.
The subterranean stage, which rests more than a story below the ground, is home to Theatre Exile, a Passyunk Square-based nonprofit dedicated to “enhancing the cultural experiences of Philadelphians through the staging of works that engage the imagination.”
Since the mid-1990s, the company has been striving to reach this mission through three core pillars established upon main stage work, new play development and education, which includes Paper Wings – a theater residency with local public schools.
The recent opening of the underground playhouse has further lent itself to these cornerstones while concurrently establishing deeper partnerships with communities of South Philly.
“I believe that the work that we do is resonate with the attitude of South Philadelphia,” said producing artistic director Deborah Block. “It’s a little in your face. It’s very direct. I believe people here tell you the truth…That’s the nature of our shows. They’re very direct. They speak to what I hope is an essential truth, and it’s about what people want and need and our journeys to try to be our best people. So, I feel like the attitude of our company and the attitude of South Philadelphia are entirely resonate and synergistic.”
Block, whose has been involved with Theatre Exile since 2006, channeled such South Philly-style dynamic as the company faced possible eviction a few years ago when its longstanding home, located at 1340 S. 13th St., went up for sale.
In 2017, the building, which is zoned as commercial mixed-use, was purchased by Center City Development.
Since the company could not afford the new rent, Block began brainstorming.
For Theatre Exile, leaving South Philadelphia did not feel like an option. Serving as such a community-based region of the city, South Philly always spoke to Exile’s core values regarding outreach, especially since the company moved its offices to 13th and Reed about a decade ago.
“Theatre Exile has a very clear, strategic plan and one is community outreach – to make the artistic movement into the community,” said Desiree Salera, chair of Theatre Exile’s board of directors. “To be able to say we’re of your neighborhood, in your neighborhood and to be welcomed by the neighbors – is truly a wonderful thing.”
Determined to keep its home, in 2017, Block pitched an idea to the building’s owners, which, although would involve some blueprint revisions, could mean more affordable rent.
“As long as we have a first-floor presence, everything else, we can dig down,” Block said.
The developers returned to Block with new plans for a state-of-the-art theater nestled below more than 20 apartments.
Designed by Cecil Baker and Partners, the space incorporates trailblazing approaches to theater that broaden both the physical and figurative possibilities of performance.
“It was important to me that it was flexible in a number of different ways,” Block said.
The space, which stands 32 feet wide by 56 feet long, sits on a custom-made floor specifically designed with buoyancy for dancers.
Suspended above the black floor is a massive metal grid extending across the entire space, which allows for mobile lighting and sound equipment. This feature coincides with a portable sound and light booth.
The transportable features essentially transpire an all-in-one staging, as the new space can be arranged as a proscenium, black box or in-the-round theaters.
Being below street-level enables other benefits, such as natural cooling.
“You need a lot of energy to run a theater,” Salera said. “The fact that the theater is underground lends itself to being an even slighter green theater as well.”
The construction was made possible through an ongoing $950,000 capital campaign, which kicked off at the end of 2017. About $800,000 was raised within one year through donations from foundations and individual donations.
With more than $100,000 remaining, the company is heading toward the finish line.
The Independence Foundation is offering Theatre Exile a challenge grant that will match new or increased donations up to $1,000. The challenge is a two-to-one match. So, if at least $50,000 in new or increased donations is raised, the foundation will donate an additional $25,000.
“There was so much goodwill in the creation of it,” Block said.
Though nomadic for almost two years, now the company has a place to call home, as Theatre Exile moved in the new space during the winter and spring of this year.
But, the new phase of Theatre Exile spills above and beyond the underground renovations.
“We’re not just committing to a physical space,” Block said. “We’re committing to the community, and no matter how wide we open our doors, sometimes you have to step outside your own doors to meet people where they are.”
During construction, the company also established a new community outreach, Out of Exile, which was made possible through a grant from the William Penn Foundation.
The program, which derives from the company’s three founding pillars, will give community members a chance to not only write and perform their own work but contribute to the creation of the company’s next world premiere.
The budding thespians will have the opportunity to present their work during Theatre Exile’s free upcoming outdoor performance series of “Whisper’s Gone.” The new play, written by MJ Kaufman and directed by Rebecca Wright, will be performed from June 22 to 30 at Hawthorne Park, Stephen Girard Park, Marconi Park and Dickinson Square Park.
“There will be a little cross-pollination in their performances, because we know South Philly,” Block said. “South Philly is beautiful and diverse, and it’s big…there’s so many different definitions of what South Philadelphia is, and so this particular program, I wanted to spread our tendrils as far as we could.”
Continuing to foster its community-based mission, “Whisper’s Gone” is the company’s inaugural public space performance.
With a 10-year lease signed on the new space, including two five-year lease extensions, Theatre Exile is ready to raise the curtain on its next act.
“We’re very proud of being a part of the national conversation of theater, but we also feel like this voice – that is Theatre Exile’s voice that is resonate with South Philly’s voice – must be part of the national conversation,” Block said. “We have a lot to say.”
To learn more about Theatre Exile and its upcoming shows, visit theatreexile.org.