In the shadow of the Brick Playhouse

The Brick Playhouse is the stuff of legend.  It was this 60-seat theater above a restaurant on South Street, between Sixth and Seventh, roughly across from where Tower Records used to be.  The building had mice, the heat worked intermittently, and the sink in the one-toilet bathroom would overflow if you left the faucet on for too long.

But every Tuesday night, nine months out of the year, they read plays by schmucks like me: upstarts who were trying to get a foothold anywhere and just needed their stuff read out loud, mostly by starving actors who didn’t have anything better to do that night.  You’d try to show up early to mill about, see who was there, say hello.  At intermission, a bunch of us would hustle to the Bean Cafe for a cappuccino.  When the reading was over, we gave feedback, right around the room, which could get a little rough in the way that only other playwrights could get away with.  After that, everyone filed down to the restaurant below to put away a couple beers and shoot the bull.  The playwright almost always stuck around, and if you felt inclined, you could buy them a beer and tell them what you REALLY thought about the play.

The reason this is on my mind of late is that the director of my last play, Bill McKinlay, used to run the Brick.  I was associated with them from 1996 until their final implosion in, I think, 2005, and nothing before or since has taught me more about craft.  I heard a ton of plays, and Lord knows not all of them were gems, but I learned to articulate what worked and what didn’t.  On a good day, I applied that to my own writing.

Every now and again, somebody in this city–some Artistic Director or Literary Manager or whomever–asks my advice about a program or a reading series they’re putting together.  For nearly ten years, I’ve beat the same drum: we need the Brick Playhouse back.  Or something like it.

Here’s a succinct way of putting it.  Someone recently told me their niece graduated from drama school, moved to the area, and wanted to know how to get into the local community.  My answer?  “Boy, I wish you came to me fifteen years ago…”  At its height, I’ll bet the Brick had over fifty playwrights as members.  And a hundred other actors and directors and whatever that would just show up.  Once, I submitted a play, only to be confronted with a three-month wait list.

I don’t want to give the impression that our output was replete with brilliance.  It wasn’t.  It really really wasn’t.

The Brick was about cultivating talent and, arguably, drinking beer.  We didn’t do a lot of producing or developing.  The Brick was a stew.  A bunch of miscreants, thrown into the same pot, trying to figure out what the hell we were doing.  Experimenting.  Critiquing.  Being colleagues.  And until someone brings that back, the Philly playwright community will always seem a little colder.

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7 thoughts on “In the shadow of the Brick Playhouse

  1. Bill McKinlay

    Indeed.

    We’re working on getting the programs back -if not the same feedback and beer mentality.

    It’s on the way back – if under a different name, but the same guerilla ascetic. Those days will soon be here again.

    1. nwardigo Post author

      Fantastic news, Bill. This city is long overdue. Just do me a favor…whatever you call your program, please don’t use an acronym. Really have trouble with PNPI and NNPN, and the whole PDC versus PTC versus PTW still haunts me to this day. I say, go with a cool, slightly scary name. Something like “Operation Thunderclap” or “The Bandersnatch Initiative.”

      Also, I think you should seriously look into decoder rings.

  2. B.J. Burton

    Reading The Brick story, I actually got a bit teary. I did. And it’s all true. The thing of it was, I think we all felt safe there, even in the midst of the mice families and the unpredictable plumbing. It was a place where we could fall and try again, and people would be there. We could experiment and discover and grow. I guess it was the appreciation factor that I felt more than anything. Whatever we brought to the table, it was appreciated, positive feedback or not. I met so many wonderful people there who still inspire me today! I’m glad you wrote about it. It would be great for something like it to come back.

  3. Peggy Smith

    Nick, I just stumbled across your blog, I didn’t know you had one. I so miss The Brick, a terrific atmosphere of constant creativity, wonderful people, and so many laughs. I’ve been in the same situation recently. A playwright, new to Philly, has asked me for advice on how to get into the theater community, and I keep saying, “If only The Brick was sill here.” I’ve given him some leads but…well, if only The Brick was still here.

    1. nwardigo Post author

      Thanks for seconding my thoughts, Peggy. Hopefully, Bill’s nefarious plans will gain some traction.

      I’ve only been blogging since January, so it’s not too surprising that you were unaware of it. I’m still figuring out what I want to do with it, but I think I have a direction, of sorts. Feel free to comment as often as you like; I can use the feedback.

      And for anyone else who’s interested, Peggy acted in my play, Concrete Dinosaur. You can check out photos of her here.

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