Sixty Years of Philadelphia Theater: Interview with playwright Walt Vail

After more than six decades, Walt Vail—a prolific playwright with an extensive acting career, who also directed, built sets, taught theater, and done many more things to support theater arts in the area—has become one of the doyens of Philadelphia theater history. Phindie editor Christopher Munden published his short story, “The Red Truck” in Philly Fiction, a collection of short stories set in Philadelphia. In honor of his 88th birthday, Phindie is publishing several interviews about Philadelphia’s theater scene through the eyes of the knowledgeable and inspiring, but also outspoken Walt Vail, who does not shy away from talking about difficult subjects. He is a lifetime member of the Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is a voting member of the National Dramatists Guild

In this, the first of a multi-part interview with Vail (read part two here), he looks back on sixty years of Philadelphia theater..

Walt Vail holding a playbill of his recent work Branch.  Photo by Tim Hawk.

Walt Vail holding a playbill of his recent work Branch. Photo by Tim Hawk.

Eger: You returned to Philly from college at Penn State with a degree in Psychology.  How did you get into theater?

Vail: I started my playwriting efforts in college, and came to Philly in 1951. In my last two years at Penn State, I had taken courses in acting, theater history, and playwriting, and had become a fixture in the Penn State Drama Department.

Eger: What was the Philadelphia theater scene like in the 1950s?

Vail: Theatre in Philly in those days was largely amateur groups, but The Forrest, The Locust, and The Walnut theaters were all pre-Broadway tryout houses. The Drama Guild was one producing theater, started by a dentist named Sid Bloom, and Neighborhood Playhouse was long established as an outstanding amateur theater. The theaters we know today that produce—Arden, Philadelphia Theatre Company, Wilma, etc. did not exist yet—they came along after the bicentennial of 1976.

Eger: How did you get a foot in the door of the Philadelphia theater scene?

Vail: I started my theater work in Philly at the YWCA, a group called Actor’s Stock. They actually produced a few of my early one-act plays—under my influence. The group was directed by Marion Angelitis, who later became my wife.

Eger: You seem to have done all the right things in this love affair with theater in Philadelphia.  

Vail: Yes, I worked as an actor at Neighborhood Playhouse in several plays [where] I had several readings of my scripts at Drama Guild. By 1953, Deen and Jay Kogan came to Philly, with MA degrees in Theatre from a Western college. They started at Actors Stock, where I met and worked with them, and within a few years—1955—they purchased a hall on 8th Street, and started Society Hill Playhouse.  

I built the first stage set that appeared on their new stage. I joined the Kogans, and acted in many plays. I also started a Tuesday night Playwrights Project to encourage the writing of new plays, and moderated it for about five years. Society Hill produced several of my plays.

Eger: You have worked with a number of theater people in Philadelphia at various theaters.

Vail: I worked as an actor and a literary manager at Society Hill Playhouse and at Hedgerow Theatre, and have acted at Bristol Riverside Theatre, which has given me practical experience in theater production.

And I worked with [artistic director and actor] Penelope Reed for many years at Hedgerow—she’s the best! I treasure the time we had working together. I was her Literary Manager for a few years, and we put on many readings of new plays. I was a bit obtuse in those days. As many plays as I had written, it never occurred to me to try writing a play with a role for Penny! I [only] thought of that some time after I moved on. 

Eger: Penelope would love to hear it. You also met many other theater people. Describe the growth of professional theater in Philadelphia.

Vail: Bill Bunker was a critic who wrote a “Little Theatre” column for the Evening Bulletin. The growth of professional AEA [Actors Equity Association] theaters in Philly began after 1976, the bicentennial year. As The Philadelphia Theater Company, Arden, and Wilma grew and built new theater buildings, trained theater people began coming [to Philadelphia]—a new generation of youngsters.  

Eger: What do you remember about those days?

Vail: I was never part of that, and have never been accepted by that group—I think they form that inner circle for self-protection of territory and jobs. They, and all the smaller theaters that followed them, are now the establishment. Here’s an example:  Society Hill Playhouse did a production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera [in 1962]—I played Mr. Peachum. Years later [1997], I think it was Wilma who did a production and claimed it was the premier production in Philly—no one remembers that Society Hill did the piece. I can still sing the songs that I sang in that play.

Eger: There is an oft-told tale in Philadelphia of the power of a woman on stage and her impact on the audience performing one of your plays.

Vail:I was sitting in the balcony just as Jan Harding was about to give her sixth performance of [my play] Hattie’s Dress, when two college students, male, came in, sat down, and opened a huge bag of popcorn and started munching. Knowing Jan and how good she was, I said to myself, “Four minutes, and they will stop eating popcorn.” I was off by 30 seconds. In three and a half minutes, both students sat mesmerized, forgot the popcorn entirely, and concentrated on Jan with mouths half open—and stayed that way for the entire play. It was during such moments that I was validated as a playwright.  

Eger: Right on. Tell us more about Philadelphia theater in the 1970s.

Vail: In 1976, the bicentennial inspired a number of professional theaters like Wilma, Philadelphia Theatre Company, and Arden to get started, and they attracted young theater professionals to the city. I never actually became part of this new generation. [However,] I supported these theaters, attended their productions, submitted plays to them, but was only accepted once, when Hattie’s Dress was produced by The Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays. I think the problem was that I was seen as in the generation of amateurs that had held the stage before Philly theater became professional.

Eger: You are addressing what may well be a taboo subject here.

Vail: Yes, I think that the professional theater people who are “in the loop” in Philly do protect their territory and avoid competition. There are only so many jobs in theater, so I do not blame them for that. I was a teacher and a writer by profession—I did not earn my living by acting or directing. As it happens, I’ve done well financially for myself, so I don’t need to earn a living from theater. That doesn’t make me less a professional playwright.

Sophocles [who wrote 120 plays] never made a living from playwriting. Those playwrights who worked in theaters did—Molière, Shakes, Goldoni. Did Chekov? We Americans tend to think that money is the criterion of success. It’s not.

Playwrights write plays because they love to write plays, and they are successful when their plays work for an audience in production.

Eger: As evidenced by your best work. Let’s hope that 2016 will see one of your productions in Philadelphia, and certainly in 2017, in honor of your 90th birthday. Thank you, Walt, and happy birthday.

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com