The Walking Fish Theatre spreads its love of performing arts to Philadelphia.
For a playwright, having one’s vision come to life on the stage is a rewarding experience – something Michelle Pauls and Stan Heleva of the Walking Fish Theatre have personally witnessed.
The theater is a creation of their vision, from the name and location to the color of the curtains and the old-fashioned scale in the bathroom.
The Walking Fish Theatre, located at 2509 Frankford Ave. in Kensington, is a nonprofit organization that spreads theater art throughout the community. Pauls and Heleva came up with the theater’s name as an allusion to Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution.
“Walking Fish portrays the evolution of us individually and as artists and an evolving community,” Pauls said.
In 2006, Pauls and Heleva bought the theater, which was decrepit at the time. Four years ago, the theater opened for business.
“You could stand in the basement and look up and see the sun,” Heleva said.
He added the building was in shambles and pigeons were the only inhabitants. In light of all this, Pauls and Heleva bought the property.
“[If I] squinted just right, [I] could see a theater and residence [in here],” Heleva said.
It took 15 months to complete and opened its doors in time for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
The theater is a great way to connect the local community with the arts, Pauls said.
“Our mission is to use theater, literature and myth to bring art to the community,” Pauls said.
In addition to performances, the theater offers a number of workshops and classes, ranging from playwriting to improvisation. These activities are aimed toward the youth, or what Pauls calls “a burgeoning community.”
Professional artists and involved students teach the workshops and classes. All aspects of theater are covered in their specialty programs, including lighting design, set design, musical theater, costume design, stage combat, sound design, puppetry, clown, mime and directing.
The theater gives the community many opportunities for residents to become involved and always welcomes volunteers.
“Whatever we do, we want it to be centered around the community because that’s part of our mission,” Heleva said.
Because of that, Pauls said he likes to call it a “theater for the community.”
“Our goal is to produce original adaptations and co-produce certain events, as well as make the theater available for rental and to be a place to house our educational outreach programs,” Pauls said.
One of the many outreach programs the theater offers is Of Mythic Proportions. This program gives high school students from the Mariana Bracetti Academy the opportunity to learn about the arts for an entire semester by professionals.
Students learn to transform their personal life experiences and hardships into theatrical performances open to the public. In 2010, this community service and educational-based program won a Barrymore Award – a first for the theater.
For three years, Walking Fish has had an opportunity to watch one of its co-productions, “High Dramma,” grow and build an audience. This performance is a sketch comedy troupe from Fishtown that performs at the theater.
Jackie Wolfson, the manager of the group, said students love coming to Walking Fish.
“They don’t tell us what we can or cannot do,” Wolfson said.
Every two months, the group tours with new sketches, and every member gets the opportunity to write.
“We use our own names so [the audience] can identify with us and become involved with us,” Wolfson said. “We keep a positive atmosphere – somebody strips in each show.”
In the future, Pauls and Heleva said they hope to expand their location. In addition, they are always looking to collaborate with other theater companies. In the fall, Walking Fish will be working with Hella Fresh, another Frankford Avenue theater company, to produce the show “HellaFish 3.0.”
In May, an original play called “Mistaken Charity,” written by Heleva will open in the theater. “Mistaken Charity” tells the tale of two elderly impoverished and handicapped women forced from the family farm by well-meaning neighbors. Ensconced at the local “old ladies’ home,” they are miserable and escape to attempt a journey back home.”
Heleva and Pauls said they believe the artistic community is everything.
“Our fate is irrevocably tied to the fate of the Frankford Avenue arts corridor,” Heleva said.
The theater is always looking for college interns interested in learning more about and teaching the arts. If interested, contact Pauls or Heleva at email@example.com or 215-427-WALK.
Nichole Baldino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org