Adding to the rich history of the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, founded in 1971 as a regional crossroads for both emerging and renowned performing arts worldwide, Annenberg will mark a new era with a rebrand.
The Annenberg Center facility, containing three theaters, will retain its name, but the organization will now be called Penn Live Arts (PLA). The creation of Penn Live Arts is meant to highlight how programming has evolved in the past half century.
“We’re approaching the 50th anniversary of the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, and we wanted to acknowledge that and think about how we’re presenting more programs outside of the Annenberg Center [space],” says Christopher Gruits, executive and artistic director of Penn Live Arts. “We needed something that better encapsulates what our program offers and where programming is offered.”
Symbolically, the new name reflects two key messages: support for the performing arts at Penn—including curricular and co-curricular collaborations—and the importance of live arts. The latter has gained added significance in the past year, even though planning for the rebrand began well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think what we realized, and this is also a result of the pandemic, is we are really committed to live performance,” Gruits says. “It’s core to what we do, part of our mission, and I think the pandemic has highlighted how important live performance is for people to come together and share an experience. We’re pleased to be one of the few performing arts centers in the region to have done live real-time programming directly from our theater, but what we’ve missed is having a live audience participate in those programs.”
For the 2020-21 fall and spring seasons, PLA was able to live-stream some performances from the Annenberg Center’s Harold Prince Theatre—a first in the institution’s history. The Center purchased state-of-the-art, high-definition cameras, tripods, and cranes to meet the needs of the Center and, Gruits hopes, those of the wider Penn community as campus reopens.
The Annenberg Center is also undergoing a few renovations this summer, with upgrades to concessions, new signage, and a new hub for The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation called the Arts Lounge in the Feintuch Family Lobby, which will include lounge space and a visual arts exhibition space. Banners reflecting the PLA name will soon drape the Annenberg Center building.
“The Annenberg Center,” says Provost Wendell Pritchett, “is poised to lead the rebirth of the arts in Philadelphia. This new name captures its energy, diversity, and range, while spotlighting its deep connections to Penn’s mission. We invite everyone in our campus and city communities to join us in returning to in-person live arts, with dynamic artists from every genre and every region of the world.”
In conjunction with the rebrand announcement, PLA is also rolling out the schedule for its 2021-22 season, available to explore in full through the newly updated PLA website.
The season will open in September with Alarm Will Sound at Morris Arboretum. The group will perform “Ten Thousand Birds,” composed by Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning composer John Luther Adams. The piece will be reimagined using native birdsong and migration patterns tracked at the Arboretum.
Indoor programming will resume in November with a performance by funk musician Maceo Parker, a “legendary funk artist who is incredibly popular in Philadelphia,” says Gruits.
December will bring a slew of live, in-person performances in time for the holiday season. Cécile McLorin Salvant, a Grammy Award-winning musician and preeminent jazz vocalist of today, will perform jazz standards and original compositions. Dorrance Dance will offer the Philadelphia premiere of a tap-dance interpretation of “The Nutcracker,” titled “The Nutcracker Suite.” December also will see “The Crossing @ Christmas, Carols After a Plague,” with 11 newly composed pieces that respond to and reflect on the pandemic, and a solo performance from Chris Thile, a mandolinist, composer, and vocalist. The Thile performance will be co-presented with World Cafe Live.
The spring season adds to the in-person lineup with a performance by Lila Downs in April, who will perform music from her latest album, “Al Chile.” Circus arts will also take the spotlight in the spring, with Cirque Mechanics’ “Birdhouse Factory” in January; in March, Australian group Circa’s “Humans 2.0,” a sequel show that serves as a love letter to humanity; and, in May, audiences will experience the presentation of Kalabanté’s “Afrique en Cirque,” which fuses traditional African music and dance with modern circus arts. May will also boast the return of the Philadelphia Children’s Festival.
As campus looks to a full reopening and audiences come back to PLA experiences at the Annenberg Center and beyond, Gruits says his team has been able to come out of the pandemic rejuvenated and able to reach more people.
“[The pandemic] allowed us to innovate in two major ways, with digital and with outdoor programming, but it also supports this concept of Penn Live Arts as a comprehensive brand not just in one building, but as a resource across the University and in Philadelphia,” he says.
“We’re excited to welcome people back.”