Below is an article written about the Mayfair Black Box Theater, by Bill Kenny, for a community journalism piece.
Few Mayfairians have ever denied the power of a bouncing ball and adult beverages to draw a crowd in their home neighborhood.
In fact, community organizations like the Mayfair Business Improvement District routinely boast that 30,000 people spontaneously gathered – many with drinks in hand and most with Philadelphia Eagles jerseys on their backs – at the hub intersection of Frankford and Cottman avenues immediately after their favorite team won its first Super Bowl 14 months ago.
A similar scene unfolded there in October 2008 after the Phillies won the World Series.
Mayfair is a serious sports town, they say.
Yet, a local entomologist whose primary vocation is managing a museum of insects wants to diversify Mayfair through the performing arts. About a month ago, John Cambridge partnered with Philly-based actor/director Kate Brighter to launch the Mayfair Black Box Theater in a previously vacant and still nondescript storefront along Frankford Avenue, right between the nationally renowned Grey Lodge Pub and a forthcoming microbrewery operated by the Lodge’s managing partner.
Despite the neighborhood’s reputation, Cambridge and Brighter insist that Mayfair isn’t the art desert it’s often made out to be. In fact, they expect to rely primarily on local talent to keep the lights shining at their one-of-a-kind venue.
“There are a lot of artists right here in Mayfair and (nearby) Holmesburg,” Cambridge said. “We’re finding that there’s really been a hidden community waiting in the wings. But there’s not really been an outlet for the people in this area.”
What exactly is a “black box theater”? It’s pretty much what it sounds like. In this case, the founders converted a middle-of-the-block retail shop by painting the walls black, installing an overhead lighting grid and installing a surround sound system. The main floor covers about 800 square feet (not including additional space for dressing rooms, a reception area and rest room). There’s enough space for about 60 folding chairs and a portable stage that can be configured to suit the needs of the resident production.
“It’s a versatile space. Anything could be staged,” said Cambridge, the artistic director.
“The seating, stage, lighting and sound can all be moved and arranged any way it’s needed,” added Brighter, the director of operations.
They’ve been testing that versatility since opening night on March 15 when their resident non-profit company, Wings of Paper, debuted its original dramatic play, Almost Maine. The theater has also hosted a community talent show, a visual arts show and a podcast featuring a former pro football player. Upcoming events include another sports podcast, a comedy show, a rock music tribute band concert and a community painting program.
Next month, Brighter will debut her new “devised show,” Pick, in which the cast members and the director will collaborate with each other and the audience to grow a basic narrative.
“It’s created by the cast with the director, and it’s audience-immersive,” Brighter said. “The audience picks and chooses which way (the story) is going to go. The outcome will always be the same, but getting there is different.”
Some of the programming is coordinated in partnership with the aforementioned Mayfair business organization, which helped the founders get the concept off the ground and continues to provide financial support.
“The pitch to the Mayfair BID was, ‘Your mission is to promote and grow the business corridor, but what is there to do here on Friday and Saturday nights?’” Cambridge said. “We said we would basically produce this space. All they had to provide was materials.”
Wings of Paper has its sights set on larger external projects, too. For example, it’s spearheading an effort to paint murals on dozens of store security gates along Frankford Avenue so that when stores close for the night, passers-by still have something engaging and aesthetically pleasing to see. The company also has designs on staging shows at the nearby Devon Theater (a 480-seat reconditioned movie house that now serves primarily as home to an evangelical church), as well as Cambridge’s bug museum, the Insectarium, that features one of the nation’s largest indoor butterfly gardens.
As for the Black Box Theater, the emphasis will continue to be community accessibility. Admission costs $20 or less for most shows. And local folks will have a much easier time getting there compared to high-profile theaters in Downtown Philly.
“Our success will be giving people in this area an artistic outlet,” Brighter said.
“We’re more than happy to steer the neighborhood (toward art),” Cambridge said. “If we kind of start the conversation, we’ve found there are plenty of people around here willing and ready to join.”
For information about Mayfair Black Box Theater, email to email@example.com.