Go Deeper

Christ Church Renovations Promise More Than Just Air Conditioning

Posted July 16th, 2010

All I’ve heard about Christ Church‘s Neighborhood House lately has been about the air conditioning. Bryan Clark and Deborah Block both played it up when I spoke with them about Theatre Exile’s June fundraiser, and past Theatre Exile patrons (as well as our Live Arts & Philly Fringe audience) may remember some great artistic experiences, but perhaps some less pleasant physical ones.

“So many Live Arts shows,” says Anna Drozdowski, “have been people sweating in uncomfortable folding chairs.”

Since Live Arts shows will bookend the renovations—the last show before the theater space was closed was Wandering Alice, and the first show when it reopens will be Cankerblossom—and because we’re presenting the next Meet the Artist event (for the New Paradise Laboratories/Riot Group collab Freedom Club, I figured I should go scope it out myself.

Anna, who has worked with everybody from Headlong Dance Theater to JJ Tiziou, has been brought on by Christ Church to develop use policies, contracts, and protocols for the renovated theater space. As she puts it, she also “translates between the theater population and the church population. Everyone has been very patient with what that process is.”

The renovations are about more than simply the air conditioning. After all, Don Smith, the executive director of the Christ Church Preservation Trust, says $4 million has been spent renovating the Neighborhood house. He sees it as an investment in a community space, supported both financially (the Trust undertook a $10 million capital campaign, including substantial donations from Christ Church’s parishioners) and in spirit, by the community.

“We’re interested in all performing arts,” Don says. “William Penn [Foundation, which also provided substantial funding] sees the need for performance space for emerging companies. Neighborhood House is a community center for Old City. It started that way, and we’re going back to the beginning. It’s just been low profile for the past 50 to 75 years.”

Anna, who’s well-connected in the Philadelphia performance scene, is charged with helping bring in those emerging artists and companies. She recently held an open house, and will host another in September.

“The real priority is to make the space affordable, setting the bar at a level where people can earn money on the box office [receipts],” she says.

The project faced some challenges along the way, but the recession had a million-dollar upshot for the project.

“It’s a bad time to get loans,” Don says, “but it’s a great time to get contractors. What would’ve been a $5 million project came in at $4 million.”

And the renovations—which made the space fully handicapped-accessible with a new elevator, added bathrooms on the same floor as the theater (and one in the dressing room with a shower), installed air conditioning, and found the most comfortable folding chairs I’ve sat in—haven’t changed the fundamental nature of the theater at all.

“The space has a lot of character,” Anna says, “but has a lot of capacity to be made your own. It doesn’t suffer from being a proscenium. It’s good for the cross-disciplinary hybrid work that makes Philly Philly.”

The next Live Arts Festival Meet the Artist event, for FREEDOM CLUB will be held at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street, in the 4th floor theater. Wednesday, July 21, 7:00 pm. Free!

Cankerblossom opens for previews September 1, and premieres September 4, both at 7:00 pm. Through September 18.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photos by Nicholas Gilewicz; designs by Voith and Mactavish Architects.

Click more to see more pictures of the Christ Church renovations.