President of Philadelphia's world-renowned theatre Plays & Players
by Rich Rubin
For Bill Egan, President of the Board of Philadelphia's Plays & Players Theatre, helming this venerable playhouse means participating in history—and a particularly GLBT-friendly history at that. The 40-year-old Egan obviously can't claim to have been there from the start, since the theatre is celebrating its 100th anniversary season this month. He's been connected with Plays & Players, though, for over 20 years working as actor, director, board member, and now president.
That he'd end up on the stage was a foregone conclusion—at least from the moment he attended a production of Babes in Toyland as a child and the villain pulled kids onstage from the audience. "Even as a child, I knew it was something surreal. There was this weird connection." As Egan grew up, the connection deepened. "In high school, I completely got the bug, seeing the effect that theatre had on people, the bond between performers."
Now, he's president of a theatre that has been among Philadelphia's leaders in presenting GLBT-themed plays, both in its own productions and those by other companies that have rented the space. It was here that Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! and Some Men were first seen in the city, here that Philadelphians were treated to such gay work as Dog Sees God, a gay twist on the Charlie Brown story. Under Egan's term, P&P has become even gayer, presenting Early in the Mourning, Take Me Out, and A New Brain in the last two seasons alone. For Egan, this involvement with GLBT productions is natural for an openly gay actor/director/administrator, who's starred in such well-known gay plays as Jeffrey and played gay characters at P&P in shows like "Love! Valour! Compassion!, Take Me Out, and Beyond Therapy. For Egan, it's part and parcel of the P&P experience: "We always want to include plays that appeal to a gay audience. It's been a big part of the history of the theatre both as a producing organization and as a rental."
This year's anniversary celebration features a reading of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, which was one of the productions featured in P&P's first season a century ago.
While Egan is now practically synonymous with Plays & Players, it was a series of flukes that got him involved with the place. He'd been accepted at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, but somehow his paperwork got lost in the shuffle—"this was pre-cell phones, pre-Internet, pre-whatever"—and he ended up staying in his hometown to pursue an acting career. He still remembers his first audition at Plays & Players. "I was 18," he recalls, "and was auditioning for the part of someone in his 30s or 40s. I was naïve; I figured, I've played 30 or 40 in college, I can do this." He shakes his head in wonder. "So I get to the audition and the director's like, 'that was great. How old are you?' I said 18. He said, 'oh, I thought you were 12.'" This Philadelphia native, who still looks younger than his age, chuckles at the memory.
Luckily for him (and for Plays & Players), he found himself cast in a production where he and another actor (the then-president) glided onstage on roller skates. "It was quite an experience. In the first performance, the president—who hadn't really rehearsed much with the roller skates—went flying off the stage and right into the audience and was out of commission for the rest of the run." Well, Egan is used to stepping into the breach, as he did several years later when the board needed new leadership. In a way, his solo rollerblading was emblematic of what was to become his role in keeping the theatre on its feet through some of its biggest changes.
After settling into a "day job" in computer information systems, and several gigs around town as actor and director, he came back to P&P, this time to audition for It's a Wonderful Life. For someone less magnanimous, it might have been a nightmare scenario: "I was called in to audition for the lead. I brought my then-partner with me. And he got the role!" He smiles. Egan did get a smaller role, though (actually about a dozen different small roles), as well as a directing job on the next show, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown—a remarkable foreshadowing, as he later ended up helming Dog Sees God, the gay twist on that classic Charles Schulz-inspired musical.
Another twist of fate—"a kismet creative connection," Egan calls it—came when he met local theatre person Lance Moore and the two spoke of forming their own company. Instead, he recalls, "We decided to stay at Plays & Players, help them restructure and rebuild the organization." Egan's next words could sum up his history there: "It was being in the right place at the right time, having a connection with each other and with the space." Egan joined the board, and his business experience proved valuable enough that a year later he was unanimously voted president.