Annenberg Center celebrates four decades of advancing the performing arts

Annenberg Center

Without the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia’s theater landscape would look vastly different.

Harold Prince, the renowned Broadway producer and director, has brought shows he directed for the New Phoenix Repertory Company to the Center. Theater producer and director Joe Papp has brought the New York Shakespeare Festival to the stage. The InterAct Theatre Company, based in Philadelphia, grew out of productions staged at the Center. Plus, for the past 29 years, the Center has supported Dance Celebration, a contemporary dance series. And for the past 26 years, it has hosted the Philadelphia International Children’s Festival.

“An awful lot of the dynamic Philadelphia theater ecology today comes out of the Annenberg Center … which, in many ways, was kind of an incubator for theater in the city,” says Michael Rose, managing director of the Center. “[Directors] felt it was important for theater to be presented here and I think Penn feels that way today—that theater connects as well as any genre across the University because it’s dealing with issues and ideas of real importance.”

Four decades after its doors opened, the Annenberg Center has become an anchor arts institution for the campus, city and region. Widely considered one of the country’s finest performing arts centers on a university campus, the Annenberg Center today features an annual slate of theater, dance, music and other performances.

It has hosted an impressive array of stars on its stages over the years, including Glenn Close, Jason Robards and Morgan Freeman, the dance troupes of MOMIX, Paul Taylor Dance Company and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, and musicians that include The Philip Glass Ensemble, Angélique Kidjo and Terence Blanchard.

The Center has not shied away from controversial productions or subject matters, staging “The Vagina Monologues” when the show was just six months old; the first national run of “Angels in America”; and “The Laramie Project” with the companion piece “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” about the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard. 

“We are committed to doing works that really explore these tough issues and issues that are out there that the public is wrestling with,” says Nicole Allen Cook, director of marketing and communications for the Annenberg Center. “We like to think we use the performing arts to allow people to explore those issues.”

Being situated on a university campus helps, say Cook and Rose.

Penn is very big on freedom of expression and the Annenberg Center has supported that in many ways, presenting work that has been controversial, work that has been entertaining and work that has been challenging.”

“It’s this idea of a university in general,” Rose explains. “A university is supposed to be dealing with all cultures, all ideas. Penn is very big on freedom of expression and the Annenberg Center has supported that in many ways, presenting work that has been controversial, work that has been entertaining and work that has been challenging. It’s a mix of all of those.”

Throughout its history, the Center has also cultivated a reputation as a performing arts center with a global focus, featuring Irish, African, Latin and Asian programming. “We know we’re in a diverse cultural market,” says Cook. “That’s opened up some wonderful connections with Penn, as well.” In the past, the Annenberg Center has partnered with Penn’s Latin American and Latino Studies program, La Casa Latina and the Center for Africana Studies.

In addition, the Center routinely features free pre- and post-performance talks by Penn professors or other area artists and experts through its INSIGHTS program.

Looking ahead, Rose says the Center will continue to present the highest quality arts performances. “[Our goal] is to very much grow the programming in depth, in identity, and to continue to bring in programming that will challenge and entertain in ways that connect the Annenberg Center to the community and the University.”

Originally published on November 17, 2011