When Gianna Lozzi Wolf was an undergraduate theater student at Arcadia University, her reputation preceded her, and she didn't have much choice in the matter. "I was always the girl from South Philly," says Wolf, who grew up bouncing among 20th and Packer, 16th and Moyamensing, and 15th and Hicks. "It's the accent."
Such paesan pigeonholing annoyed her at first, but it didn't take too long for Wolf to realize she could and should bend the conversation her way. "Eventually, I was like, 'Hell yeah, I'm the girl from South Philly! Let me run with that,' " she says. "Why can't South Philly do theater?"
The actor and playwright, 28, along with a tight-knit crew of family, friends, and artistic associates, has been working for the past year to put this plan into action, making South Philly a destination for original, independent stagecraft. The proof of concept: Raw Street Productions, a new theater company that will stage its inaugural 2018 season out of Connie's Ric Rac (1132 S. Ninth St.), the bar and performance space that's been a familiar fixture in the Italian Market since opening in 2006. This weekend, the company will host its first-ever cabaret fund-raiser.
While there are other active South Philly theater troupes, like 11th Hour and Theatre Exile, Raw Street stands out by dint of its home base. While it's always been a venue for punk shows and stand-up comedy (check out the circa-2011 flier promoting a set by the now-huge Hannibal Buress pasted up in one of the restrooms), you don't think of plays when you think of Connie's. But that changed in the fall of 2016, when Wolf, who works at the nearby Square Pie and bartends at Connie's part-time, tricked out the existing stage to host the debut of Right Behind, a one-act comedy about the zany travails of restaurant industry employees.
Right Behind proved to be a big hit, selling out its two runs; they eventually added a third and final run, at the Center Theater in Norristown, in the spring of 2017. "We even surprised ourselves with how smoothly it went," says Wolf. "After that run, all our wheels started turning. We could do this here."
The "we" in question — a self-described pack of "South Philly misfits" — encompasses Wolf; her younger brother Freddie Lozzi, 24, who handles directorial and technical duties; and Ron Bauman, a partner at Connie's who also runs the local digital marketing agency Milk Street. But it's not just those three partners contributing. Costume designer Rachel Segal is Wolf's childhood best friend; Kat Stein, Connie's bar manager and booker, holds a piano degree from the University of the Arts and will help with the musical aspects of their productions.
Bauman, a longtime friend and bandmate of Connie's other owners, Frank Tartaglia and Pete Pelullo, has watched the Connie's space improve incrementally since it opened. It was BYOB before adding a liquor license about three years in; in 2013, when Bauman came on as an owner, they completely overhauled and upgraded the sound system. More recently, they added draft lines, started taking credit cards and covered the north wall in murals from local artists. Now, with Raw Street claiming Connie's as its home field, Bauman "look[s] at what's going on now as the next significant upgrade," he says. With around 80 seats for stage shows (plus standing room and bar space for anyone who can pack in), "It's a more interactive theater experience that, say, going to the Kimmel Center or Walnut Street Theatre," adds Bauman.
They're even adding a curtain to the stage that was more likely to host punks than actors.
The program the troupe has pieced together for its first season reflects this alternative approach, as well. The last weekend of April will see them putting on their first post-Right Behind show, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. An edgy comedy that lampoons characters from a famous comic strip (it shares a name with one of the main ingredients in a Snickers bar), the parody is "very different from Right Behind," says Wolf. "It's funny, but it's also super-dark."
Later in the year, Raw Street will present title of show, a one-act with a postmodern, Adaptation-esque bent (creators Jeff Brown and Hunter Bell essentially wrote the musical about the process of writing the musical). After a summer break, the company will return with an original work, The Eight Fish of Christmas, a comedy Wolf is currently penning that centers around a recently divorced Italian American woman who brings her new Jewish boyfriend to her family's raucous Christmas Eve dinner.
As Raw Street is a fully self-funded pursuit, Wolf says she has no issues doing whatever she needs to do to secure the money necessary to make the company a success. "If we have to do a car wash, we'll do a car wash. We do what we have to do," says Wolf, who hopes to raise roughly $5,000 to offset production costs, including the price of securing the rights to outside works like Dog Sees God and title of show. But before they start soaping down trucks, Raw Street will stick to what it knows — a free-admission, donation-based cabaret at Connie's that they hope will inch their coffers closer to their goal.
Expect Raw Street talent to perform numbers from musicals both classic and contemporary (Waitress, Heathers), as well as selections from Johnny Cash and other non-thespian artists. They encourage all comers to don Roaring-'20s-era garb to sync with the cabaret vibe.
"All we have is the talent, the passion, and the audience that shows up," says Wolf, "and what they think us running with this crazy dream is worth to them."