Act One: How I Met Your Mother
(at the Annenberg Center)

Richard Feintuch W’74 currently serves on the board of overseers for the Annenberg Center, but his association with the center goes way back—and beyond theatre. Annenberg had only been open for a few months when Feintuch, then a sophomore, invited his friend Merry Henig W’74 to see the Penn Glee Club perform there. He was wowed by the facility’s beauty and newness—“it was in stark contrast to a lot of the older performance spaces on campus,” he says—but the girl he brought as his date made an even greater impression. “Merry and I had been best friends since the first day of freshman year,” he explains. “When one of my roommates suggested I take her [as my date] to the concert I thought, ‘Oh, sure, why not?’ but it went from a platonic friendship to something more in that one date.” The Feintuchs have been married for 36 years now.

Looking back, the college sweethearts “recognize that this was a very valuable part of their undergraduate experience,” Rose says. In fact, throughout their courtship, Merry and Richard often went back to the Annenberg Center for various performances; they’d pick up an inexpensive pair of student tickets and see whatever Broadway preview or concert or play was scheduled for that night. “These were unbelievably fantastic productions at a very cheap cost, which made me thrilled with having the Annenberg Center on campus, and made me jump at the opportunity to get on the board,” Feintuch says.

Since the Feintuchs’ first date there in 1971, the Annenberg Center has gone through several transformations. Though it’s always hosted touring shows and theatre companies, for much of the 1980s and ’90s, two local theatre groups held long-term leases on the Center’s plum performance spaces, restricting its opportunities to present other theatrical works—student performance access, in particular, was “very limited” back then, Rose says.

Rose was named managing director in 1998, following the resignation of longtime managing director Stephen Goff Ar’62, who had worked at Annenberg since its beginning in 1971. The center had conducted a six-month review, and was in the midst of a three-year reorganization process when Rose came on board.

“We began putting more emphasis on the presentation of theatre ourselves, as opposed to just being a place where local companies could rent our space and produce their own shows,” Rose says. And the students came back, filling Annenberg’s three theatres with their colorful productions and late-night rehearsals. Their presence had been missed, for, as Rose puts it, “the Annenberg Center’s vitality comes largely from the programs we present, but perhaps even more so from the wealth of activity that takes place here with student performing arts.”

By the early 2000s, the center had begun to focus on work that’s rarely seen in Philadelphia, Rose says. As a result, it’s hosted a number of big-name national and international companies over the years: the Globe Theatre from London, the Guthrie Theater from Minneapolis, the Deaf West Theatre from Hollywood, the Abbey Theatre from Dublin. Those companies, along with dozens of others, have helped the center present a host of provocative works.

“We’re really focused on looking at theatre as a cauldron of issues and ideas that connect to what’s occurring on campus and off campus,” Rose adds. “We’re focused on theatre that has substance; theatre that’s challenging. Even when we brought in Shakespeare with the Globe, it was two dark, difficult plays.”

Annenberg also helps connect Penn’s often-scattered theatrical points. It provides a plush, professional performance venue for student theatre groups; offers classroom and stage space to a number of theatre arts classes; hires students to work in its box office; and serves as a home for the entire theatre arts faculty, whose offices occupy the third floor. It also works hard to entice audiences from within the Penn community, offering $10-$15 student rush tickets and a 10 percent discount for staff and faculty members. (Alumni discounts are also available.)

While the Annenberg Center has been providing actor-led workshops, pre-show talks and post-show conversations for years, Rose says the Penn Theatre Initiative will allow it to further expand those offerings. It will also provide more opportunities for companies in residence—that is, those with extended engagements at the Center—to offer master classes, workshops, open technical rehearsals, and other student-friendly fare.

Despite all that’s happened (and continues to happen) since his first trip to the Annenberg Center, Feintuch says that “in many ways, it’s almost precisely today what it was back then. It was a place where highbrow professional performances intermingled with wonderful student performances on different days. That makes it a very special treat for everyone in Philadelphia, but most especially for the Penn community.”

 


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FEATURE: Penn Theatre: A Work in Three Acts by Molly Petrilla
Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

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