[ theater ]
As Paul Kuhn walks up the steps of the Calvary Center, the Band-Aid on the crest of his head unsticks itself, revealing a nasty little gash. "A pipe snuck up on me in the basement," he says, with a halfhearted attempt to reapply the bandage. "There's always a few that take me by surprise down there."
For the past six years, Curio Theatre Co. has performed exclusively in this space, a 114-year-old decaying, hauntingly beautiful church at 48th and Baltimore. Kuhn — Curio's co-founder, artistic director, occasional performer, technical director and principal set designer — works nearly every day in the historical chapel, but he's still discovering quirks. And low-hanging pipes.
Eleven years ago, in an effort to preserve the building — and to keep its priceless Tiffany windows in the neighborhood — community and Calvary United Methodist Church members formed the Calvary Center for Culture and Community. Curio was one of the organizations enlisted to inhabit the space, attracted by next-to-nothing rent and near-total artistic freedom.
Kuhn and his collaborators soon had visions of a major professional repertory theater on Baltimore Avenue. But the company has been slow to grow, while struggling to find its niche in West Philly. Curio's projected 2011 budget is just a tick over $100,000. Professional Equity theaters in the region typically have an annual budget well over $400,000.
But lately Curio has stopped trying to fight its idiosyncratic home. It's taken about six years, but all three staff members say they finally understand how to work with the hand they've been dealt.
"As soon as you walk into the space, the architectural elements overwhelm you. I mean, you're trying to say 'look at this little stage' to the audience, and in the meantime they have a 50-foot Jesus standing in front of them," says Kuhn, referring to those invaluable stained-glass windows.
The situation came to a head three years ago with their production of Joe Orton's 1969 sex farce, What the Butler Saw. Kuhn readily admits his design for the show was ill-conceived: a realistic unit set smack-dab in the middle of the cavernous cathedral. The show often played to audiences of 20 to 30 in a space with endless rows of church pews that could hold hundreds. Tough room.
"We had this big meeting during that show, and we finally realized that you just can't be funny in that chapel," Kuhn exclaims, sitting up straight in Curio's West Philly office and extracting big, knowing laughs from the other staff members.
It's hard to disagree with him. A sex farce is definitely a tough sell with Jesus watching every dick joke.
But for their 2009 production of The Weir, the company tried something radically different: They sat the audience right on the stage with the actors and cordoned off the rest of the space. Only 45 people could watch the play each night, but The Weir would become their most successful show. Soon they were finding ways to pile 70 seats into the sold-out performances.
For their latest, Tom Stoppard's classic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Kuhn and director Elizabeth Carlson have again implemented their Weir strategy. The audience will be on stage, where they can reach out and touch the performers.
Just before a Monday-night rehearsal, Carlson and managing director Gay Carducci look on as Kuhn shows off the work-in-progress set for R&G. He and theater artistic associate Jared Reed turned the chapel into a living, breathing theater space almost entirely by hand. Kuhn can enumerate its virtues and nagging frustrations with equal detail. In a tone something like the proud owner of a vintage Mustang, he describes the color pattern of the new stage lights, the diameter of the pipes in the chapel's antique organ, the height of the debris netting on the ceiling.
But then he mentions a bat — a real-live bat, which he named Mortimer — currently living in the upper reaches of the century-old structure.
A bat in the belfry — literally!
Carlson and Carducci throw him sideways glances, as if to say: "Paul, are you actually telling a reporter that we have bats in our theater — really?"
But if looked at the right way, a live bat entering stage left could be a magical theater experience. You just have to find the right audience.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead runs through May 14, $10-$15, Curio Theatre Co. at Calvary Center for Culture and Community, 4740 Baltimore Ave., 215-525-1350, curiotheatre.org.