The First Baptist Church at 17th and Sansom Street has devoted a portion of its real estate exclusively to the making of plays.

It's the first union of a matchmaking service pairing churches with theater companies.

For 12 years, the nomadic Azuka theater has staged 23 productions in 11 different locations. That has made it difficult for audiences to follow Azuka from season to season.

"Most people, when they go to the theater, they think of the building," said artistic director Kevin Glaccum. "When you go to the Wilma, it's the building on South Broad. When you went to the Arden it meant going to the building on 2nd street. To go to Azuka Theater meant various things from year to year."

Glaccum and company have signed a one-year lease agreement with the church, and transformed an underground meeting hall into a fully-functioning theater space with proscenium, seating risers, lighting racks, a sound system, and their own administrative offices.

On Wednesday, the company will debut the 85-seat theater with "Act a Lady," a comedy in drag set in a 1920's dustbowl town.

The lease agreement was brokered by Partnership for Sacred Spaces, an organization connecting underused churches with theater companies needing affordable space. This is its first lease agreement in Philadelphia.

Many small to mid-sized theater companies in Philadelphia complain about the lack of available space in the city. There are larger spaces available for expansive productions, and no shortage of empty warehouse and storefront spaces to rent on the cheap. But for a modest prodction there is a dearth of spaces outfitted with theatrical requirements: enough electricity and bathrooms (a major concern).

The Iris theater company Inis Nua has joined Azuka as residents of First Baptist Church. Both are members of a loose consortium of local theater companies called Off Broad Street. In February, Inis Nua plans to stage a play set in contemporary Dublin, called "Little Gem," in the yet-unnamed church theater.

"It's written in our lease that they do not have any jurisdiction over what kind of content we can produce," said Inis Nua director Tom Reing. "They said, 'if you have certain things our congregation might be worried about, just let us know.' They just wanted to have knowledge of it, that's all."

Before he signed the lease, Glaccum visited the church during a religious service to tell the congregation about the mission of his theater company: to give voice to people whose stories go unheard. "That struck a chord with the congregation," he said. "It's got an outreach sensibility to it. We tell stories ofpeople on the outskirts of life. In that sense it's outre, but we're not doing 'Oh, Calcutta!'"