Theatre Exile returning from exile

Theatre Exile is all settled into its new home in the basement of the building that replaced its old home. But that doesn’t mean they’re finished outfitting it yet.

Exile’s plans for completing its theater at 12th and Reed streets got put on the back burner by the COVID-19 shutdown. But now that the city is emerging from lockdown, Deborah Block, the theater’s producing artistic director, would like you to take a seat while she explains how far Exile has come and the work that remains.

In fact, you could even put your name on the seat if you like.

Exile’s Name-a-Seat campaign represents the home stretch of the theater’s $950,000 fundraising drive to fully equip its new home for performances and other events.

The campaign launched in late 2019 with the goal of buying new seats and equipment to complete the facility, but the COVID pandemic led Exile to slam on the brakes while it figured out how to remain connected to its community while its stage went dark.

“The building of the theater happened fast, and Theatre Exile tends to be kind of scrappy,” Block said. “So we were able to put on a couple of shows using our old chairs and some of our old equipment, even though our theater was brand new.”

The campaign was going swimmingly when the shutdown order came. That required Block and her staff to pivot fast. 

“With so many people out of work and our entire economy in a state of upheaval, it didn’t feel time to push the campaign forward,” said Block. “In fact, we spent most of our time when the theater closed down figuring out how we can support our artists, how we can support our community, rather than asking people.”

Block was able to keep her entire staff on payroll as well as pay the artists who were scheduled to perform in “Orphans” after the theater had to cancel its last show of the 2019-20 season. Meanwhile, the theater put together a series of virtual events online. “Conversations in Exile” featured conversations with the playwrights who wrote and actors that appeared in Exile plays, and the currently-running “Play Club” brings theater lovers together to read and discuss scripts of current plays, book-club-style.

And while this was going on, Exile figured out how its new home would adapt to COVID-era social distancing requirements.

“One of the cool things about our space is that it was designed to be entirely flexible, so it’s not going to have fixed seating,” Block said. “And what that means is that we can be really adaptable to social distance gathering.” One of the set designers who has worked with Exile has already come up with a plan that will meet the needs or social distance while enabling guests to enjoy events. The new design will cut seating capacity from 105 seats to 40, but “if that’s what it means to be safe together,” Block says the theater can deal with it.

In the meantime, until it can reopen for real, Exile plans to hold more virtual events, including new play development workshops. The theater is also working on ways to present plays consistent with the social distancing guidelines. Block said the theater is even looking at staging one show outdoors in the coming season.

And now that the city is slowly returning to a new normal, Theater Exile is picking up the Name-a-Seat campaign where it left off. For $1,000, a donor or group of donors can put their names or the name of someone they wish to honor on a seat, and the Independence Foundation will match the gift dollar-for-dollar. You can donate to the campaign online or by calling 215-218-4022.