Denise Shubin, legendary figure in the Philadelphia cultural scene, turned her house on Bainbridge Street, one block from South Street, into the Shubin Theatre. For almost three decades, hundreds of theater artists and young companies spread their wings there. Its recent closure left a void in the city’s theater scene.
When I requested an interview at the goodbye party after a moving farewell performance, she joked, “Really, an interview with a vampire?” and then shot back, “No, no—a Diva!” and smiled with that warm and welcoming Shubinesque smile. A few days later she responded, “I am flattered that you want to do an interview with me. In no way do I view myself as a legend. I do believe, however, that I have much to say, not only on my behalf, but that I can represent many others who have been under-appreciated by the Philadelphia theater community”—and that is putting it mildly.
GROWING UP IN A CRAZY, YET CREATIVE WORLD
Henrik Eger: You were raised in a Jewish family. Tell us more about your upbringing and your love for the arts.
Denise Shubin: My family was quite secular, but it was clear that they wanted my brother and me to know that we are Jewish, identify with that heritage, and take pride in that knowledge. Both of my parents were born and raised in Philadelphia, and I was born here, too. However, my family moved to Southern California when I was three years old, and I lived there for 28 years.
But life growing up was not all that wonderful. My father was an alcoholic, and my mother was a prescription drug addict. Our world was wrought with domestic violence. They divorced when I was eleven years old.
Eger: Given that background, how did your appreciation and love for the arts develop?
Shubin: My attraction to the performing arts has always been quite innate. However, even with all the madness in my childhood world, I can now see where many of my talents were nurtured in a weird kind of way.
My father was hugely charismatic, possessed a huge presence, was a natural MC and comedian—one of the funniest people I have ever known or have known of. He would grab a microphone whenever there was one in sight and sing and sing and sing. He never actively sought life in “show business,” but I know that is always what he wanted to do, and he found his way to take the stage, any stage, whenever he could.
My mother was gorgeous, deeply troubled, and charismatic as well. She expressed her artistic side with drawing, painting, and creating a beautiful home. My mother taught Latin ballroom dancing for a time at Arthur Murray’s. And both of my parents were great dancers. My fondest memory of them was of them dancing together.
Still, it was a crazy world. It is a wonder that any of us survived. But I can tell you, that as far back as I can remember, I dreamed of dancing and singing.
Eger: How did you transition from dance to theater?
Shubin: I didn’t. I am still dancing, and will continue to dance as long as I am able. I believe the call to the dance to be a spiritual one. One never stops being a dancer as it is part and parcel of who one is. The wisdom of the body informs everything I do. Whether I dance, sing, act, or decorate the house, it is within the body where the truth lies, not the mind. Dancers have to be extremely comfortable in their own skin, presenting the totality of who they are with a perfect balance of body, mind, and spirit fully present in the moment.
Actors are supposed to be doing this, too. However, we see bad acting with inappropriate facial expressions, and awkward, contrived gestures. These performers are not fully in the moment because they are thinking and not being. Dancers can’t get away with that. Whether one is dancing, singing, or speaking a role, the “being” has to be there.
SHUBIN THEATRE: STEPPING STONE FOR NEW THEATER COMPANIES
Eger: You are one of the few people on the East Coast who turned her house into a theater. Tell us more about the evolution of the Shubin Theatre in Philadelphia.
Shubin: My husband Don Martinelli and I didn’t exactly turn our house into a theater. We selected this building at 407 Bainbridge Street with the intention of creating a theater on the ground floor before we moved into the house. So it was not an afterthought. We were in a position of acquiring our first family home, and it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to select a storefront with living space above, as opposed to buying a conventional home.
Growing up on the West coast brought me back here with fresh eyes. I saw Philly differently than lifelong residents do. A property like this in a like location would cost millions in L.A. or New York, but here it was doable. And I could be free to explore and express my passions and energies in a way that was constructive and, hopefully, be of service to others as well.
Eger: What were the highlights of your experience as a producer and host to many individual theater artists and small theater companies in the area?
Shubin: I don’t know where to begin! How can I possibly document nearly 30 years of experience? Mostly it is the joy of simply being able to do something that you always wanted to do. I have produced my own shows, and have worked in collaboration with many other artists.
We had triumphs and failures and all places in between with many lessons learned and the growth that comes with such experience.
Because of the low overhead we always maintained, gazillions of independent artists and small theater groups could afford to perform at the Shubin. We knew from the very beginning that we didn’t want our lives to be about fundraising. We never wanted a board of directors, and did not want to become yet another non-profit vying for what little grant money is out there. We never applied for a single grant. I have always joked that I am a true non-profit. I never made any money! I have no regrets about any of those decisions.
Altogether, I’m happy that far more artists [who produced their shows at the Shubin Theatre] were able to make their dreams come true than I could have ever imagined.
“WE ARE NOT NEARLY AS SPECIAL AS WE THINK WE ARE.”
Eger: You apparently faced some difficulties in producing hundreds of shows.
Shubin: Mostly just poor behavior on the part of some of the theater renters. For example, trashing the space and in so many other ways treating us, and the space, disrespectfully. For all the kind words that have been expressed in the wake of announcing that the space is closing, we have had to endure at least as many denigrating comments over the years. And, of course, there is the betrayal of false friends. People are people. I had to learn that “artists” run the range of human characteristics, just like any other profession. We are not nearly as special as we think we are.
Eger: What made you decide to close your theater after 29 years?
Shubin: I accomplished what I set out to do. And now it is time to move on. We no longer want to contend with liability issues, and would just like to have our house to ourselves. As romantic as it may seem to live this lifestyle, it really wears on you over time. We tiptoed around upstairs so as not to make any noise during shows, while we had to endure the noise downstairs. We couldn’t have our family, or even a couple of friends over for dinner for fear of making too much noise, and our poor dogs have been pounced on should they have had the audacity to bark! And we have not been able to leave town for a couple of days on a whim, as it would be irresponsible to leave should there be some sort of a problem or an emergency.
We are not blaming anyone for this situation. We quite consciously created and chose this lifestyle. We just don’t want to live like this anymore. And there are many uses we have for both what was the theater space and the basement that now would radically improve how we live and free up space upstairs. We did not come to this decision lightly. We have been thinking about it for a few years now.
PERFORMING ON STAGES ALL OVER PHILADELPHIA
Eger: You have performed in quite a few productions in Philadelphia. What was one of the most memorable performances for you?
Shubin: I was the first actor in Philadelphia to perform The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe [by Jane Wagner, Lily Tomlin’s wife], produced by Gary Day’s The Daylight Zone at the Actors Studio in the Bourse (Sept. 1995). I actually got a great review there from Neal Zoren. He told Lily Tomlin about my performance and she almost made it to the show, but the theater was dark on that night. She wanted to remain incognito so Neal couldn’t tell us she was coming or we surely would have gone on! Later we brought the show here to The Shubin for many more performances.
Eger: You developed a close working relationship and friendship with Ed Shockley, playwright, actor, teacher, and community activist.
Shubin: Yes, I have worked with Ed on numerous projects, including another one-woman show, Martha Mitchell In Mostly Her Own Words, which documents the tortured life of the woman who tried to blow the whistle on Watergate and suffered severe character assassination as a result of her honesty and openness. She was drugged, beaten, forcibly institutionalized, and lost everything, including her life, aged 57.
I am especially proud of performing in a play written by Bill Rolleri (Ed Shockley directing) which dealt with the attempted genocide of the Armenian people by the Turks: The Armenian Question. This was performed at an Armenian church to a full house of both native and transplanted Armenians —a deeply moving experience.
I also performed in another of Ed’s productions. Forces of Darkness, exploring the infamous case of the Rosenbergs, executed for treason in the early 1950’s. After the Shubin farewell party, Ed, who is working on overcoming the effects of the stroke on his language, saw a dance photo of me and reiterated that he wants me to perform Indubitable, the new movement-based piece he is working on. He said, “I know you can do it.” I can’t tell you how much I appreciate his faith in me.
Eger: Great. You were also featured in the Fringe festival.
Shubin: Yes, I performed in a number of Fringe productions, including Lure at Plays and Players in 2006, which dealt with the issue of addiction. Lure was interesting in that we had two playwrights and two directors: Todd Holtsberry and John D’Alonzo co-directed, and Robert Kangas and Alex Dremen co-wrote the piece. The Jesse Schurr band in that production made for a most interesting and highly popular show.
And the past two years, I have worked with REV Theatre Company, doing our delightful Graveyard Cabaret, performed at the Laurel Hill Cemetery—a national historic landmark.
Eger: And you collaborated with a number of Philadelphia playwrights.
Shubin: Yes, I have worked directly with numerous playwrights, including Alex Dreman, Quinn D. Eli, Bill Hollenback, Robert Kangas, Kate McGrath, Debra Leigh Scott, Sam Toll, Mark Wolverton, and, of course, Bill Rolleri and Ed Shockley—just to name a few. I honestly never kept track of all that I have done.
Eger: How did those collaborations work?
Shubin:I was just fortunate enough to be cast in some of their plays and many of them have written for me personally. And, on occasion, I reached out to some of the playwrights, asking them to write for me, and never once did any of them decline my invitation. They considered it to be jolly good fun to consider me as their muse! They are all quite gifted artists and some of them have become very good friends. I am deeply appreciative of our work together.
PHILADELPHIA THEATER COMMUNITY: STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Eger: Given your experience, what do you consider the greatest strength of the Philadelphia theater community?
Shubin: Its diversity. There is SO much going on here.
Eger: Absolutely. However, I understand that you also have some concerns about the Philadelphia theater community.
Shubin: It is no secret that the Philly theater community is quite cliquish. There is a definite hierarchical structure within it. And the powers that be within this system decide who is considered somebody or who is not—depending on whether or not one chooses to climb that ladder. Talent, or the lack of it, has nothing to do with it. It really has more to do with who you know, and to what lengths one will go to be known.
Eger: Thank you for your willingness to address a sensitive subject. To balance the picture, a number of writers featured your work as a legendary patron of theater arts. It’s heartwarming reading the many wonderful things people all over Philadelphia have said about you, for example, “She made people’s dreams happen” (Rich Rubin), or “a lovely human [being] and gifted lady, a true Renaissance renegade! Wild Woman of the Art Universe, and most treasured Soul Sister” (Oni Lasana).
Shubin: I am deeply appreciative of any and all of the kind words that have been expressed in the wake of closing my theater. I think all of us, if we are emotionally and psychologically healthy, would like to think that we have had a positive impact on the world, no matter how big or how small. My concern is that my legacy is simply that I provided an affordable theater space. That is a good thing, and while I am very happy about that, there is a lot more to me—and anyone else for that matter.
I have been performing in Philadelphia for 33 years as a dancer, singer, and actor—and sometimes as a producer, director and writer. Yet, few of the theater critics or other notables in the theater community—again, making reference to that hierarchy—are even remotely aware of my work as a theater artist. And I am not the only one.
Eger: There are other theater artists who feel neglected?
Shubin: So many of my colleagues—actors, writers, singers, dancers, directors, designers, and many other theater artists—are just ignored by the powers that be. We are not Barrymore eligible. However, we are neither inferior beings nor inferior talents. And many of these colleagues are highly accomplished on many levels, including having received prestigious awards. We live, breathe, and have our own followings. We make people think and move them to both laughter and tears. We are, at the very least, memorable to those who have seen us, and we make a positive difference in this world.
The business of this “business” is something that has never set well with me, but this is just what I see going on, based on the culture of pandering in Philadelphia that folks feel forced into in order to be taken seriously. I realize this is just the nature of doing business, any business. I just had the tremendously naive notion that life in the arts would be different.
Eger: What could change that culture in our community, and what would you like to share with the next generation of actors, directors, and theater artists to enrich the cultural life in Philadelphia?
Shubin: Don’t prejudge anyone based on their credentials. Instead, experience people directly. See if it is possible to scale down your budget. It is inspiring what can be produced on a shoe string. So many companies had to throw in the towel because of having to feed the fund-raising beast. But most of all, BE TRUE TO YOURSELVES! You, and everyone else you know, will vastly benefit in the long run.
SING! DANCE! RECOVER YOUR JOY. That is what I intend to do.
Eger: Wonderful. Let’s dance. Is there anything else you would like us to know?
Shubin: I have tried in this interview to communicate a balanced view of my life in the arts here in Philly. All in all, it has been a most positive experience and I am at peace with all that we have done. I wanted to tell the truth, and I sincerely hope in so doing, that others will be served by these comments.
Eger: If only you knew how many people, myself included, feel enriched by your very presence—on stage and off stage. Thank you for everything, Denise Shubin.