September 4, 2008 Issue
Chestnut Hill Local
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10 years of professional theater at Ambler venue
As Ambler’s Act II Playhouse opens its 10th anniversary season this week, it is entering a new chapter in its history — Act II’s second act, if you will.
Its first act began April 21, 1999, when the former karate studio on Butler Pike was renovated into the 130-seat theater that has been the company’s home since Steve Blumenthal and Alan Blumenthal (no relation) founded it and named it Act II because it was their second career, the second act of their lives.
It was an immediate hit. The only professional theater (that means having a contract with the actors union, Actors Equity) in Montgomery County, the Playhouse filled a void for many area theater lovers. The Blumenthal Brothers, as they affectionately were known, had made the decision that they were going to employ the best local theater artists they could find as directors, designers and performers. And that they did.
The cream of the local acting community have trod the intimate theater’s boards under the direction of, to name a few, Deborah Bloch, Jennifer Childs, Dugald MacArthur, Whit MacLaughlin, Harriet Power, Ceal Phelan, Aaron Posner, Peter Pryor, William Roudebush, Seth Rozin, Robert Smythe and Richard M. Parison Jr.
The productions at Act II have been nominated for 24 Barrymore Awards. They’ve won four. Among the theater’s most distinguished productions were two shows based on the music of Harry Chapin, the fine chamber musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and, perhaps their best show, the hilarious musical about the history of the universe, The Big Bang.
As time went on, area residents’ theater-going habits changed. Fewer people, the folks at Act II report, were willing to commit to specific dates as subscribers. Over the past couple of years, therefore, they’ve had to rely more on single ticket sales. Like a lot of non-profits in the weakening economy, income began to dwindle, and that impacted the quality of the work on stage.
Recognizing the need for help, co-founder Steve Blumenthal, who is now 80, asked for help. (Alan Blumenthal had left the theater in 2006, the reasons for which were never fully explained.)
He turned to the successful businessman, Frank “Bud” Martin, who earlier in his life had been an aspiring theater artist, primarily as a director. After years in the business world, he wanted to return to producing and directing. He has, he says, connections in professional and non-profit theater all over the U. S. and is currently involved as a producer on several projects, including the Broadway-bound musical production of Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5.
“When Steve Blumenthal called me for help,” Martin said in a recent interview at the theater, “I told him that it takes a big man to ask for help. Unlike Steve, I have figured prominently in the business community for the last two decades and can reach into corporate and individual sponsors previously not available to Act II. I was responsible for bringing in sizeable sponsors for our last three productions. I believe I can do more of that in the future.”
Part of what he hopes will happen is that shows that begin their lives in Ambler will go on to other productions and that Act II will hold a piece of the action, an additional and important new source of income for the theater.
“It was just serendipity, the timing of my selling my company and Act II needing an angel,” Martin, 57, said. One of the things he wanted to do as the theater’s new producing artistic director was to hire someone as an associate artistic director more familiar with the Philadelphia theater community than he is.
He turned to award-winning director and Villanova University theater professor Harriet Power, whose work has been seen at InterAct, the Walnut Street Independence Studio on 3, the Philadelphia Drama Guild, Venture Theatre, Villanova and the Cheltenham Center for the Arts as well as at Act II.
Power, also 57, looks forward to working with Martin. “I love working with other people. I’m a very good collaborator.” She and Martin will be responsible for planning the seasons, and both will direct there often. Steve Blumenthal will remain in the picture as an advisor with the title “founding artistic director.”
Both Martin and Power are aware of the challenges ahead. “We’ve got to rebuild,” Martin says. “I’m not a patient person. The challenge in programming is how do you plan a season in a way that you’ve got the right mix, one where you’ll have audiences wanting to be the first to see a new play.
“We’ve got to build audiences and build audience support at the same time we’re trying to challenge them. We don’t want to lose the audience we’ve had over the years, but we’ve got to get more people. It’s important for us to make sure we keep these people engaged while we develop new audiences.”
Their tenure together began well with Married Alive, which they produced and which Martin directed, from June 13 to July 6 and which got good audiences and good notices.
Their first full season begins this Friday with Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets. Directed by William Roudebush, the show runs through Sept. 27. This will be followed by Magnetic North (Oct. 21 to Nov. 16), Iron Kisses (March 10-April 5) and Respect: A Musical Journey of Women (May 5-31). Also slated for the upcoming season are two special events: Tony Braithwaite’s Look Mom, I’m Swell! in December and Bruce Graham’s well-traveled The Philly Fan with Tom McCarthy Feb. 17 to March 1.
They also plan to leave open the possibility of adding a show that grabs them. Both are committed to Act II’s ongoing and improving health. “Our shared promise,” Power said, “is that when you walk into our theater, you’ll be engaged, stimulated and excited by what you see.”For more information about Act II’s upcoming season call 215-654-0200.