Thursday, June 25, 2015

Dream Brainstorm

Tripoli inspects my proscenium doodles
One of the most common questions I'm asked about the Hannah is: "What exactly are you going to do with the space once it's finished and open?" I have a lot of ideas. I don't know how many of them will end up on the cutting room floor, but maybe you'd like to know what I'm thinking.
Oh, first, I want to mention that we are now a non-profit, yeah!! I filed for 501(c)(3) status back in April, and to everyone's surprise, my application was approved by the IRS in less than a week, during tax season no less. Apparently the new streamlining of the federal tax exemption application process really works, because everybody we spoke to with non-profit experience told us it would probably take about a year before the approval came through. Not true anymore!

Anyway, back to our plans for the Hannah. Matt and I are either directly involved or good friends with people directly involved in a lot of different art forms around Philadelphia. While I often refer to the Hannah as a "theater," my choice to name it the Hannah Callowhill Stage was deliberate, because I don't want it to be thought of as just a place for traditional theater, though traditional theater is certainly welcome. I want it to be a venue for multiple forms of art. I want to bridge communities of artists, to get wildly disparate audiences together in the same space, to have artists reach beyond their usual crowds.

I'm sure it's going to be difficult (impossible) to break even for at least a couple of years, especially with all the money we are going to have to sink into upgrading and renovating the space. But I'm thinking of the Hannah kind of like a child. I'm not looking to make money; I'm looking to create and develop something amazing, something I will love and nurture that will make the world better.

So here are a few of the initiatives that have been knocking around my head.

Residency Program: Pitch Us Something Meaningful

Some time in the next year, I'll find the Hannah a logo, and then I'll design our website around it. And there will be a link on the website to an application process where artists who want to use the space for a meaningful performance project can tell us about it. We'll review, and if your idea clicks with us, we'll let you use the Hannah for a short residency without any kind of rental fee - we'll just take a small cut of the ticket price to help cover overheads.

Recital Series

Hey, big surprise: I know a lot of world-class classical musicians. I can probably fit an upright grand permanently in the space. I will throw open the doors for any of these musicians who want an intimate venue to perform. Maybe I'll even try for some kind of recital festival one day, with multiple recitals over the course of a weekend, and a season ticket that gets you into all those recitals.

New (Art) Music

Another big surprise: I know a lot of composers. Let's get some new music concerts into the space. One of my first ideas is to get some of the Penn Composers Guild concerts into the Hannah so that there's some off-campus exposure for that excellent work (and I can call it the Hannah Callowhill+Penn Series). There's also an undergraduate Penn composer group who have already asked to use the space. Maybe Network for New Music can think of something that would fit into the Hannah too.

Rock Shows

I already mentioned that we're going to introduce this puppy to the world with an Up Your Cherry show. Matt has another band, and knows a few bands and electronic outfits around town and elsewhere. I think it would be pretty awesome to host some intimate club shows at the Hannah for both local and touring bands and artists.

Shakespeare School for Kids

Years ago, I ran a theater summer camp program at a YMCA. One of the camps I introduced was a Shakespeare course, which I had stipulated should be for children aged 12 and up -- but an error in the camp brochure listing printed the age range as 7-12. I showed up on the first day of the camp with my Hamlet syllabus in hand, and found this incredibly young group of kids staring at me. I briefly wondered if I should ditch my plans, but then I thought, what the hell, let's see what happens.

It was amazing. I think we vastly underestimate kids. And I think we vastly underestimate Shakespeare.

Those kids got it. I was constantly surprised by how willing they were to dive in and learn. Over the course of a week, I took them through the entire play, acting out scenes and explaining the action, and they took to it like ducks to water. I'll never forget the day we got to the last scene of the play, because it was without a doubt the most incredible teaching experience I've ever had. The youngest student in the camp, a seven-year-old girl, was playing Gertrude. After the kids read through the scene, she raised her hand.
"Miss Melissa, I have a question."
"What's that?"
"Do you think Gertrude knew the wine was poison when she drank it?"

For real. This seven-year-old girl, with no prompting whatsoever from me, had asked one of the most central questions about Gertrude's character and journey. A question that has been debated endlessly in college classrooms, and interpreted differently by directors throughout history. I was floored.
"Well, what do you think?"
She stopped and thought, eyes on the ceiling. Then she looked right at me and said softly:
"I think she knew."

I nearly burst into tears. Wow. Wow wow wow.

So, yeah. I want to teach Shakespeare to middle school kids. I want to start a year-round Saturday morning school that culminates in a summer camp and public performances of full-length Shakespeare plays featuring kids aged 7 to 12. Aside from anything else, watching Shakespeare being performed by kids is almost as cool as watching kids learn how to perform Shakespeare. I think the performances will be a hit.

Composition School for Girls

Continuing with the teaching theme for a moment, I also want to start a composition school for girls, similar to Girls Rock, but focused on art music. This is me putting my money where my mouth is on an issue that I feel very strongly about. The school will feature classes as well as one-on-one composition lessons taught by the many composers I know in the area. For this, I'll probably need to get funding or donations for a bunch of computers (MS Surfaces, maybe), and I'm hoping that by the time this initiative gets off the ground, the new Steinberg scoring software will be released, because I'll start everyone on that. Concerts of the girls' compositions twice a year, with professional and advanced student performers. Outreach to universities and music organizations. Scholarship program so that as many openings at the school are free or subsidized as possible.

Lobby Gallery and Merch Booth for Local Crafts

The Hannah has a sizable lobby, with enough room for a merch/gift booth and a concessions stand. I am definitely planning to sell La Colombe coffee, because it is amazing, local to Philly, and I already buy their cold brew by the case for personal consumption (and they just launched a canned latte YESSSSS). I'd also like to offer counter space for local creative people to sell crafts such as jewelry and clothing and books (if their craft happens to be book-authoring). The rest of the lobby has plenty of wall space where we could host small exhibitions for visual artists who want to display or sell pieces. And hopefully also space for a Little Free Library.

Outside the lobby, I'd like to install a bike rack of some kind, if the city will allow. In general, I'm trying to go as green as we can; we're looking into LED stage lights, which will be far more expensive to buy, but cheaper and greener in the long run, and I also have my heart set on a green roof on the third floor, especially since Blondell Williams just spearheaded an increase to Philadelphia's green roof tax credit to 50% of the cost.

Puppet Shoooooooows

For the past couple of years, I've been the music director at the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, so I know a lot of amazing puppeteers with incredible shows, and I think the Hannah would be the perfect space to host many of those shows. Depending on how the finances work out, I'd love to offer the one-bedroom apartment on the second floor as artist housing for out-of-town performers to crash in.


This is totally pie-in-the-sky, but when I was a kid, I loved competing in the Brisbane Eisteddfod, and we need something like that over here. At the very least, the Shakespeare school will probably have some kind of monologue festival.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There's so much more. Obviously, Ayn is going to open there, once I've finished writing the damn thing. We'll no doubt rent the place out to people who want to use it for Fringe shows. It seems a perfect fit for things like the SoLow Fest or First Person Arts. I'd love to curate a webcast lecture series. I've been talking with a local improv group about becoming their home base. Poetry slams. Film screenings. Feminist stand-up. Dance performances. Occasional event rentals such as weddings, if you're cool.

I even thought that it might be cathartic to host an all-women magic show to exorcize the creepiness of the location's past. I'm still on the fence about that, though.

I'm also open to suggestions. If you have a nifty seed of an idea that you want to plant in my brain so that it might germinate by the time this place opens, leave me a comment below...

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