Go Deeper

Venue Profile: Going Underground With Underground Arts

Posted June 29th, 2011

Gary Reuben, a Cornell-, Penn-, and Wharton-trained architect and real estate developer thinks big, as one might expect from a developer with his academic pedigree.

“The idea of picturing what it could be stimulates me to work on it. If we can do this in Philadelphia, there’s a building like this in Pittsburgh, Erie, Wilmington, Baltimore. It’s all about bringing art to people. It’s the first thing that gets cut out of schools. Nobody values it, nobody realizes that to have a rich culture, you need to have the artists. To have political dialogue, you need to have the artists,” Gary informed the Festival Blog one recent afternoon.

“Pig Iron’s been a big influence on me as well as my son’s theater-going. The devised work is the kind that’s most appealing to me.”

He emphasized that he’s not a theater professional, but with Undeground Arts—a performance space in the basement of the Wolf Building that he and his partners redeveloped on Callowhill—he’s devised a space for adventurous work. Gary hopes that the facility will become a nexus of innovative perfomances and artistic collaboration.

In its short tenure, Underground Arts has presented very-well received new theater by some of Philadelphia’s most exciting artists, including Brat Productions’ staging of Carrie Swim Pony’s SURVIVE, and AGGROCRAG’s Hello from the Children of Planet Earth. Gary’s son, Max Reuben, is a co-founder of AGGROCRAG.

“I realized that kids needed a break to get started, and wanted to give a place for artists to build their audience. It was because of my son’s involvement in theater that I decided to do this,” Gary said.

To that end, Gary makes Underground Arts available to select artists free of charge.

After the jump: Super Soakers and liquor. But first enjoy the above video tour!Gary and his partner bought the building in May 1997. Initially, the building spaces were predominantly artist studios and light manufacturing facilities; the first apartments were not built until five years later.

“Gradually, our tenant base changed along with the demographics of the neighborhood,” Gary said.

The Wolf Building hosts a number of social service organizations, and Reuben says that his tenants are also largely young entrepreneurial types, including web designers and a recording studio.

Reuben and his partners are only the third owners of the building. In 1927, the Wolf brothers constructed the building to house their paper manufacturing business. After that business left, Reuben says the building became the home of the Super Soaker water pistol, until, according to an Inquirer article, Hasbro bought the company and outsourced manufacturing overseas.

“When you come down here you feel that something different is happening,” Reuben said. Descending the industrial staircase into the basement, attendees are thrust into a raw(ish) space: a pile of bricks at the bottom of the stairs, and walls painted by Todd Marone, an artist inspired by Keith Haring and African tribal art.

As with many of Philadelphia’s old industrial buildings, the basement of the Wolf building provides what can only be called a cavernous warren—high ceilings, many rooms, and over 11,000 square feet, all of which is still under development, catch as catch can, for Underground Arts.

“I’m a real scavenger,” Gary said, gesturing around the space. “Whatever I can get people to leave here stays here in one way or another. Artists can take whatever they need, and leave something behind as well.”

When Lower Merion High School closed its old building, Reuben scavenged a lighting grid, curtains, and curtain track from the school’s theater. Innumerable items from shows past and present crowd the designated backstage areas and dressing rooms. Even while it scrambles for material, Underground Arts already has received some hefty recognition of its growing role in Philadelphia’s arts community. The space was one recipient of a federal Recovery Act Grant, administered by Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy, to help create and preserve arts jobs. Gary’s been spending the money to further build out the space.

“I’m spending the $50,000 three to three-and-a-half times over,” Gary said, having built out men’s and women’s bathrooms in the basement, and with plans to open an elevator shaft to improve accessibility for disabled theater-goers.

“The idea is to have the rawness of the space, but to improve the audience experience and the artists’ experience,” said Gary. An improving space means more shows, happier artists and audiences, and growing numbers of arts workers.

To further develop the community, and to fund the space, Underground Arts has entered into an agreement to purchase a liquor license, and Gary hopes to open a bar—a welcome addition to a neighborhood that has only a handful of solid hangs.

“If we can get a liquor license, there could be a social component for the arts experience. If it becomes a place where the artists want to be, we can achieve cross-pollination and collaborative work,” Gary said.

He envisions Underground Arts becoming a nonprofit organization so it can seek a wider range of grant support and charitable donations. Underground Arts already operates with an informal advisory board, stacked with younger theater artists, a group that helps guide what work is produced at Underground Arts, and that could be a basis for developing a board of directors.

“My job is to nudge this thing in the right direction and stay out of the way. I have to put my own ego aside with this,” Gary said.

Nonetheless, his broad vision for a circuit of venues like Underground Arts could be achieved—a number of artists make a habit of self-touring to Fringe festivals around the country. Two New Orleans artists, William Bowling and Christopher Kaminstein, will stop by Underground Arts on August 1 for a one-night-only showing of their production Our Man, which is on its way to the Berkshire Fringe Festival a few days later.

“It’s a political satire, with two actors who sit in a six-foot plastic cube. They elect a tennis racket named Ronald Reagan,” Gary said.

His son Max, along with AGGROCRAG, will present a piece at the 2011 Philly Fringe. When asked what it’s about, Reuben said he didn’t know yet.

“It’s also a devised work,” he said, “so I’m not sure they know either.”

Underground Arts will host AGGROCRAG’s 2011 Philly Fringe production in September. Tickets on sale soon, and check the websites of Underground Arts and AGGROCRAG for more details as they are devised.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Video by Lulu Krause