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.