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Philly People Behind The Curtain: Terrence J. Nolan

The Arden Theatre Company is dedicated to bringing to life the greatest stories by the greatest storytellers of all time. They draw from any source that is inherently dramatic and theatrical – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, music and drama. The Arden presents programs for the diverse greater Philadelphia community that arouse, provoke, challenge, illuminate and inspire.

History:
Founded in 1988 by Terrence J. Nolen, Amy Murphy and Aaron Posner, Arden Theatre Company began producing at the 70-seat Walnut Street Theatre Studio and was immediately hailed as a welcome addition to the Philadelphia theatre community. After our second season, we co-founded the St. Stephen's Performing Arts Center to provide us with a larger theatre (150 seats) and a unified location for classes, education programs, administrative offices and production shops. Our five seasons at St. Stephen's were marked with continued growth.

In 1995, Arden Theatre Company purchased a 50,000-square-foot building in Philadelphia's historic Old City neighborhood. The building has been renovated to contain a 360-seat mainstage theatre (F. Otto Haas Stage); the 175-seat studio theatre (Arcadia Stage); the Independence Foundation Studio; a bi-level lobby with box office, elevator and restrooms; rehearsal and classroom space; and administrative and production offices. Our move to our new home sparked even more growth for the Arden, and played a significant role in the economic revitalization of Old City.

Terry Nolan, as he likes to be known, graciously agreed to spare some time for us as he prepares to launch the Arden's 2007-08 season with Stephen Sondheim's brilliantly intense musical Assassins.

Since our founding in 1988, they have garnered numerous awards and honors from critics and audiences alike, including six Philadelphia magazine "Best of Philly" Awards, four Philadelphia City Paper Reader's Choice Awards and four "Theatre Company of the Year" citations from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Since the inception of the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre in 1995, Arden Theatre Company has received 182 nominations and 35 awards.

Terrence J. Nolan himself has been awarded several Barrymore awards. Most recently in 2006 best director for Opus and Winesberg, Ohio. In 2005 The Arden took Philly by surprise with its blockbuster production of Sweeney Todd winning several Barrymore nominations and awards including "outstanding musical" and again Nolan accepting the best director award for that production.

I was intrigued by Nolan's creative choices and wanted to know what he looked for when choosing a work to direct? "I always look for something that excites me, stirs me, and compels me in a slightly new way. I'm attracted to plays and musicals that have interesting narratives, great unique storytelling. For me it's always a process of falling in love; getting lost inside of the piece, to feel in some way, part of it. After I've read it, explored it and I'm convinced, then I'm sort of desperate to bring it to life," says Nolan.

Pati Buehler: What attracted you with Assassins?

Terrence Nolan: I have to admit, when I first heard that Stephen Sondheim was writing a musical about presidential assassins, I had my doubts. The year was 1990, America was involved in a Gulf War and the first President George Bush occupied the Oval Office. Why write a musical about such a dangerous and disturbing topic? Writing a musical about a demon barber and his cannibalistic pie-baking partner was one thing…but presidential assassins?

And yet as I listened to the original cast recording, I was swept away with what Sondheim and Weidman had created. Drawing from a wide range of American musical traditions – from Sousa to Copeland to barbershop quartets -- here was, to quote Walt Whitman, "America singing." I was drawn in by these remarkable portraits of men and women who pursued the American Dream and somehow took a very wrong turn. In this collection of misfits, I saw images of an America that I knew existed. Like so many of Stephen Sondheim's musicals, Assassins took me to a place I don't normally go.

There is a Philadelphia connection to the genesis of this musical. The idea for Assassins came from Charlie Gilbert, an accomplished writer and composer who runs the musical theatre program at the University of the Arts.  Years ago, Charlie wrote a musical also entitled Assassins. Upon reading it, Sondheim asked Charlie if he could use his idea as a springboard for his own musical, to which Charlie graciously agreed. And so the musical you are about to see was born.

Pati: If there is a thought process that you can share; what are the three or four steps that transform the "page to stage" process into a production?

Terrence: We've done a lot of work at the Arden with the actor/audience relationship. Our theaters are flexible. We move them around, always remembering that this is a theatrical event and the audience is an essential part of that experience. So the first thing is to figure out what we want to explore with the actor/audience relationship. IE: How does the actor walk through, cross over, be a part of the audience and how do we want to "cast" the audience for that specific part of the project. So obviously the projects calls for a proscenium or in the round presentation. We've explored environmental staging quite a bit in the past few years.

Later this season when we do Our Town, we'll do Act One at the Arden in our mainstage and then will walk next door to the Christ Church, a beautiful church where George Washington worshiped for Act Two, where the wedding will take place in the church. We'll cross over the cemetery that exists between our two buildings where several signers of the Declaration are buried. We want our version to be very much about Philadelphia and our community, thus helping our audience to experience the play in a different way. The people at Christ Church have been so amazing about this adventure. We will also invite several Philadelphia and community area people such as our Governor Rendell, local sports and TV people, perhaps a teacher of the year to come in to act as the town folk making the play come to live and celebrate our community as a really special event".

Pati: This sounds wonderful and also leads into one final topic; where do you see the Arden heading creatively?

Terrence: We have a deep commitment to Philadelphia. We audition first and foremost here in Philadelphia.  We have ongoing relationships to several Philadelphia playwrights including Michael Hollinger, Bruce Graham. WE have an apprentice program where we bring in about 200 apprentices for all aspects of the theater; the goal of the program is to train future theater leaders. The Philadelphia trust of the work will continue. Anther important aspect is exploring shows and writers that push the boundaries of American musical art. We did Caroline or Change last season, a piece that remarkably became our best selling show ever. So we've developed an audience that are interested in shows that tell important stories while stretching what traditionally musical theater are viewed to do.  The third trust of our work is the new plays and musicals we produce. We started a commissioning program where Philadelphia writers such as Eric Posner, Michael Hollinger and Michael Ogborn are writing a new musical about the Dutch called Tulip Bulb Craze. Jordan Harrison is writing for kids based on Hans Christian Anderson's last story, The Professor and the Flea. The workshop, the readings we do for our news works remains an important part of what we do. And then the fourth thrust is our works for kids. We want to do world Class Theater for kids. We did Frog and Toad, The Dinosaur Musical, bringing together our passion for musical theater, theater for kids and new works.

Assassins is Arden's 9th musical by Stephen Sondheim, making him the most produced storyteller in the Arden's history (followed by Shakespeare and Michael Hollinger). "Directing the work of Stephen Sondheim reminds me why I first started doing this and why I continue to do," says Nolan. "I write the unexpected," Sondheim has been quoted as saying. May he continue to do so, and may his work continue to inspire others to do the same for therein lies the future of the American musical.

Assassins plays at the Arden Theater through October 21: www.ardentheatre.org

Photo: Terrence J. Nolan, producing artistic director, courtesty of Arden Theater

 To read BWW's review of the Arden's "Assassins" click here.

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