Why we're here, and what we're trying to do with our podcast. Peter tells the story of his own personal history, and how he started on the task of researching, exploring, and teaching the history of the theater in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The matter of spelling the word "theater" (as opposed to "theatre") is explained, and the complexities and attractions and challenges of the Philadelphia's history is addressed.
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Welcome and welcome and welcome again to the introductory episode of Adventures in Theater History: Philadelphia.
My name is Peter Schmitz, and I will be the host, narrator, interviewer, researcher, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer of this podcast series. I’m the one who came up with the title Adventures in Theater History. Why call it “Adventures in Theater History”? Well, just because I liked the sound of it, to be honest. I wanted to do a podcast about Theater History, and use it as a platform to make a public record and share some of the theater history research I’ve been doing lately. Like many history podcasters, I just like Explaining Stuff, on my Twitter account I call myself an insufferable smartypants know-it-all, and while that’s a bit of self-deprecating humor, I guess it’s not too far from the truth, really.
Oh and yeah I’m spelling it Theater with an ER not at RE. Because that’s what Noah Webster did, when he wrote his first American dictionary. I love the Brits, but I’m not British, and I don’t need to follow the lead of 18th century pedants who wanted everyone to know the word came from the Latin word theatrum. I don’t see the point, and neither did Mr. Webster. So: ‘Theater’. That’s my call, and I’m sticking with it.
But hey, why “Philadelphia”? Philadelphia is not the place that springs to mind when the history of American theater is taught, and you can look deep into most standard theater history textbooks, and not see the city mentioned at all or maybe just for a brief paragraph while they discuss Early Theater in America . . zzzz . . And then you never hear about it again! So, that is an excellent question: Why Philadelphia? . . and I will get back to it - in just a minute.
I’ve been teaching Theater History, for a number of years now, at various colleges and universities in the Philadelphia area. I was a History Major, way back, when I was at college - but after graduation, I opted not to embark immediately into the the fast-growing and dynamic world of Academia, and become one of those History Professor Billionaires, like so many of my classmates - or wait, maybe my classmates all went off to invent the Internet, or go to Law School, or Wall Street, or something, I’ll check on that at the next reunion. Anyway I went into the Theater World instead. I went to Drama School. Studied to become an actor. You know, because it seemed safer and more secure. Something to fall back on.
After working for a decade or so as a professional actor in and around New York City, I moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and worked in local theaters there for quite a spell.
But In the year 2005 my family and I moved to the Philadelphia area, for various reasons. And that’s the place from which I am speaking to you at this moment.
Now, this is not where I grew up. I’m a Midwesterner, originally, as you may be able to tell from my voice, and I hail from St. Louis, Missouri, originally. Some people say ‘Missoura’, yes, but I never did - growing up in Missouri - so I’m not about to start now. I think a lot about the way people sound when they speak, actually, and I’ve developed a nice sideline as a dialect coach and a theatrical accent maven. I’ve taught accents and dialects classes, I’ve taught many acting classes, I’ve been in a LOT of plays. Stepped onto quite a few stages in many theaters all over the country, over the years - a very few film sets, not many at all, really - But wherever I went, and whatever play I was working on, I invariably found myself always reading background material about the world of the play and digging deeply into its history.
Or I would start digging into the history of the theater building I was working in. Or I found myself pumping my fellow cast mates for stories and recollections of their careers.
(If you know actors at all, you know it doesn’t take much to get most of them started on that subject, anyway . . )
After a while, I guess I developed a local reputation as a smarty pants know-it-all, because I found myself being invited to actually teach classes about the subject of Theater History, and giving lectures, and preparing slide shows. And as any good teacher of history invariably does, I started to assign my students to find out about the history of the place we were in right now, the city of Philadelphia, one of the oldest and largest cities in the country, after all, with lots of theater companies everywhere. And naturally I started digging into local theater history right along beside them . . and the more I dug, the more gold I found. Real golden information about not just the high-end performances of great dramatic literature, but information about broadly popular entertainment, parades, circuses, minstrel shows, agitprop street theater, puppetry, everything . .
Not many other people were doing this research, I realized, and I felt . . well, like I was on an Adventure. Exploring some territory that just hadn’t been well mapped, but that was full of fascinating places and stories, and I started to collect them. I freely admit that I’m not the most authoritative source. I’m not a guy with a PhD. I don’t have tenure at a prestigious educational institution, and as I mentioned I’m not a native Philadelphian. I’m glad to accept corrections and suggestions from anyone, especially if you are one of those people. I’m just a guy with a podcast. But I’m enjoying the heck out of doing this, and if I can pass any of that joy and fascination I feel along to any of you, well then I’ve done what I came to do.
So. Here I am. Ready to share what I’ve found on my adventures with you.
Working along with me on this project is Christopher Mark Colucci. Chris has much more credibility as a longtime Philadelphia theater guy than I do, and in fact is one of the best sound designers working around here. He has more Barrymore Awards (the annual local Philadelphia theater award) than you can shake a stick at. Don’t shake sticks around Chris, I mean it. The Barrymores will have to have a word with you about it, if you do. I have worked on many shows with Chris where he was the sound designer, composer, musician, and I’ve been in the audience for many many more. His reputation is legendary and well-deserved. You can hear some of his music on Soundcloud, if you want. Or even better yet, you can hear them in Philadelphia’s theater productions all over town.
Chris is the one who has written the theme music, and done the sound mixing and so much of the design and production work on this podcast. I’m honored to have him as a friend and as a colleague. If this podcast sounds professional and slick at all - well that’s due to Chris. I literally could not have done it without him.
But okay before I wrap this introductory episode up, remember back there at the beginning, when I said I would tell you why I am centering the stories in this podcast around the theater history city of Philadelphia? Okay. I’m doing that right now.
As I said, I moved here back in 2005. Started performing in plays around here, working with theaters, teaching at colleges. But the city of Philadelphia itself is a character in this story. As an outsider to the place, it took me a little while to work my way in, learn the stories, the local lore. To learn, literally, where the bodies are buried. I mean it. You don’t have to do much historical exploration around here before you realize that there are forgotten burial sites just about everywhere. They keep turning up! This is really not that old a city, compared to some in Europe or Asia or North Africa, sure, I know that. But for America, it’s pretty old. For a while, back in the 18th Century it was the premier city of North America. If you know ANY Philadelphia history, it’s usually about that time, right? The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin, the Liberty Bell, all that. But if you spend any amount of time here, you quickly learn that part of the history of Philadelphia is a relatively small portion of the time it has existed, and it all happened long before Philadelphia grew became a major industrial (and then a post-industrial) metropolis, and it was even before, as we shall see, that there was much theater activity going on here.
Now Philadelphia people are passionate about their city (both positive and negative), and there are legions of local historians who can tell you its Deep History, its secrets and its successes, much better than I can. It’s a complicated and complex place, alternately dynamic and driven, and then sometimes divided, dull, and deluded. It can be secretive and parochial: When I arrived here I quickly learned that there were many local customs and habits and things that You Were Just Supposed to Know and were Never Explained (like, say, why you can park in the middle of Broad Street in South Philadelphia, which is technically illegal but not really, or when to call the town “Philly” and when NOT to). It can also be astoundingly warm-hearted and open: Once somebody decides they like you around here, they like you - I mean the REALLY like you. They will be on your side, forever.
Founded by devout and idealistic Quakers, some of the most consciously peaceful people in the world, Philadelphia has much in it that is gracious and elegant and welcoming, but at the same time those Quakers were often Hard Men of Business, and were involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. I’m hardly the first person to point out that the City of Brotherly Love has also become an often violent and terrifying place to be. An early leader in American science, technology, banking, business, and education, it is in many ways antiquated and backward looking, with significant infrastructural and societal issues everywhere you look. It has a racial divide and a poverty rate that are highly dispiriting, to say the least. Like many seaport cities, it has always been full of burgeoning immigrant and vibrant international communities, and yet it has also been a center of resistance to change by embedded and parochial power elites.
The biggest paradox, for our purposes: Though it has a longstanding institutional structure to support and train the industrial arts, as well as the visual and musical artists, it was slow to develop the structure to support theater artists, historically. Though many actors and playwrights came from around here, few stayed put. Quite recently, as we shall eventually see, however, this has started to change. Actually, for the last few decades an astounding number of theater artists - actors, writers, directors, designers, techies, stagehands, have not just COME from Philadelphia, but have STAYED here - made Philadelphia their home and built theatrical institutions. Even as I record this now, in the waning months of the COVID pandemic, it is filled with talented people who love the theater, love to attend the theater, love to make theater and dance and music - and yet it is not a city whose reputation is based upon its creative classes. You probably think about its sports teams, and their legions of local devoted fans here, maybe you think about its terrific Art Museum, and the steps, before you think about theater and Philadelphia. Part of that is because ever since the early 19th Century, it was outstripped in population and wealth and cultural prominence by New York City, the city just 90 miles to the northeast, the leading force in national theater was Over There, not Here - and Philadelphia knew it. Inevitably, we will be spending some of our time talking about theater in New York and elsewhere in the world, too.
But I’m here to tell you - literally here to tell you - that there’s a story to be told about the history of theater and performance in the city of Philadelphia, and it’s a fascinating and rewarding one. I’ve had a delightful time learning about it - researching and uncovering it. And that theater history did not happen in a vacuum, it happened in the midst of all that revolution and violence and creativity and idealism and greed and corruption and urban expansion and cultural conflict. The history of the theater in Philadelphia is so deeply tied to many other political and societal and racial and cultural stories, you can not separate them. And so I won’t, in fact I don’t even want to. It’s better this way.
Thank you again, Chris Colucci, for the theme music you’ll hear during the episodes. My plan is to make this a multi-episode podcast with projected fifty episodes. But maybe there will be more, or less. Maybe eventually I’ll open up the podcast to the stories of other American cities. I can’t quite tell yet. Like a lot of journeys, you’re pretty sure how long it’s going to take, but you never really know. So, we will see. I can tell you definitely that the first five episodes of the show we’re releasing all at once, you can listen to them right now, and after that we plan to release another episode about every two weeks. If that plan changes, we’ll let you know. Look for us on iTunes, and Google podcasts, and all the other places podcasts are found. As I’m sure most of you know that you can leave a review on iTunes and other places, and that really helps me, too.
In the next episode, I’ll do a general overview of the history of the theater in early Philadelphia, up through the end of the 18th Century. And after that very Serious and Important work, well hey we all deserve a break - so we’re going to go to the circus. Thanks for listening.
If you’d like to support the show and the work I’m doing, there’s a Patreon account set up: Adventures in Theater History. There’s also an email account: AITHpodcast@gmail.com. That’s where to find me if you have questions or corrections. There’s my longtime Twitter account @schmeterpitz, where you can see more info about the show, and where I post regularly about Theater History topics. So many ways to be in touch!
See you again next time as we begin our journey. Glad to have you along! Here we go.