The Passyunk Square-based company has won ample praise for its provocative productions.
Over its 25-year history, Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St., has become a study in numbers, with more than 100 plays, 23 world premiere presentations, and 19 Barrymore Awards. Two other totals stand out: thousands, as in the total of people who have taken in and reveled in the company’s output; and one: the goal that the company has had since its inception—giving voice to pieces that explore the complexities of the human condition. With the second show of its anniversary season, “The Motherf**ker with the Hat,” set to open on Wednesday, February 9, 2022, the Passyunk Post caught up with Producing Artistic Director Deborah Block for a recap of Theatre Exile’s past quarter-century and a look ahead at its bright future.
Passyunk Post: How have theatergoers benefited from being able to take in the gritty, provocative plays that Theatre Exile has presented since 1996?
Deborah Block: I think Theatre Exile’s gritty persona and small size makes us accessible. Coming to Theatre Exile should feel like coming to a friend’s house where you can put your feet up and talk about anything. Our shows are very direct, but we are there to encourage the audience to explore the conversations our plays evoke. We want to be a part of and accessible to the community. I think the nature of who we are makes it safe for people to explore the ideas in our gritty and provocative work and perhaps talk about subjects they may not have explored publicly before.
PP: What has your nearly 16-year employment history with Theatre Exile meant for you as a presenter of art and an admirer of theatre?
DB: We often say that Theatre Exile is pushing boundaries by presenting stories that address timely subjects in a strong, direct voice. That said, sometimes a story is best told inside out or upside down. It can be a lot of fun to subvert the form when presenting an important story.
PP: What has helped Theatre Exile to stand out among local theater companies?
DB: Theatre Exile is a place where compelling theater can always be found thanks to daring artists, the value our staff place in our community, and the conversations our shows inspire. Our audiences are incredibly intelligent. They expect and support the risks we take in our productions. I feel like they are active, engaged members of their communities who seek out art that makes them laugh, cry, and think. We want our audiences to “feel” a Theatre Exile play while at the theater and “think” about it long after the show is done.
PP: Regarding this anniversary season, what do you feel will most appeal to people familiar with Theatre Exile, and why is this year’s material great for those who have never taken in a Theatre Exile show?
DB: Our whole season is balanced in the way that I hope most Exile seasons could be balanced. There are a lot of laughs throughout the season, and at the heart of each play is a timely subject that needs to be told. We started with a world premiere “Extreme Homemaker” by Makasha Copeland, which spoke to the trials of the working poor and the love that often holds families together – even when they’re living on the edge. Then, we went with a modern theater classic with “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. This play dives deep into the cycle of self-sabotage that can keep us from being our best selves.
We will end with “Today is my Birthday” by rising star playwright Susan Soon He Stanton, who’s known for her work writing for HBO’s Succession. This story is often seen through an absurd lens and gets to the heart of the isolation that many of us are feeling and having difficulty addressing during the pandemic. These subjects are incredibly important, but each show is told with humor, heart, and an occasional punch to the gut.
PP: What have been the perks of having a presence in the South Philly community?
DB: Community. Directness. Honesty. That’s what I think of when I think of South Philly. It’s a rough-around-the-edges set of overlapping neighborhoods filled with cultural diversity and wildly divergent points of view. It’s a great place to create art, dig into ideas, and have engaged conversations in aisles of the Acme.
For tickets to “The Motherf**ker with the Hat,” call 215-218-4022, or visit https://theatreexile.org/shows/the-mfer-with-the-hat/.