Oct 03, 2017 12:37PM ● Published by Steven Hoffman
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When Susan Boudreaux’s family moved near Hockessin in 1972, her parents took the family to see a show by the Chapel Street Players.
“I don’t know how my parents found out about it,” said Boudreaux, who was in sixth grade. “But we’d go periodically.”
The theater became a family affair in more ways than one. Her parents served on the board, and in 1988, when she was 26, she took a role as Alice Sycamore in “You Can’t Take it With You.” Soon after that, she joined the board as the secretary. “I’ve been involved with Chapel Street Players ever since,” she said.
Boudreaux is in good company. Scott Mason, who asked Boudreaux to join the board in 1994, has been the president of the board three times, and his current tenure started in 2009.
Considering that it’s an all-volunteer organization – from the actors on the stage to the set designers to the directors – it’s clearly a labor of love. But it is one that’s brought pleasure to generations of audience members.
“We went to see their Christmas show last year ... and it was a really fun night,” said Meg Morgan. “There was not a bad seat in the house, to use a cliché. The show was well done and fostered a wonderful sense of community. Drinks and snacks at intermission, too!”
CSP, which kicked off its 2017-2018 season on Oct. 6 with the drama “1984,” has survived funding issues, changing demographics and a city that’s swelled with university students since 1935, when the group performed its first play, “Mrs. Bumstead Leigh.” But the show has always gone on.
Many people assume that the Chapel Street Players started on the university campus, and it did – sort of.
UD’s theater program was founded in 1934 by Robert Kase. The students performed in Mitchell Hall, a building with a theater that opened in 1930. But students weren’t the only ones who started walking the boards on campus. Seeking an outlet for the faculty and the community, Kase’s wife and 34 others started the University Drama Group, or UDG, for short. Townspeople joined in 1936. UDG and the university’s E–52 theater group often swapped actors.
During World War II, UDG produced a variety show for the sailors at the nearby Navy base in Bainbridge, Md. In 1948, UDG presented the first of several annual $50 awards to the UD graduate who contributed the most to the school’s theater program that year.
When the UD theater program took off, especially during the Broadway boom in the mid-century, stage time in Mitchell Hall was reserved for student productions. By 1965, UDG membership exceeded 150, and the group needed new space. By scraping together money, including monies raised from a fundraiser that’s become a 50-plus-year tradition, UDG was able to purchase a brick church on Chapel Street in 1969. The former Baptist church still holds the evidence of its old use. The technical booth, for instance, is in the choir loft.
Initially, two churches rented the space, and UDG performed in such places as Maxwell’s barn at the Walter S. Carpenter State Park on Route 896. The first official show in the new space, produced by the newly christened Chapel Street Players, was in November 1970.
CSP performs four main stage shows a year, which are part of a subscription series. (You can subscribe even if you miss the first production.) Each year, CSP also features a June comedy or comedy-musical, known as a FUNdraiser, which has a set fee ($20) for all seats. This is the 55th year for the June event, which five years ago was named the Annual Renee G. O’Leary FUNdraiser in honor of O’Leary, a local resident, who has been in every single one of the fundraiser productions in one way or another.
Since CSP is made up of volunteers, the selection process differs from that of a for-profit production. The group posts applications on its website for directors, who must submit an idea for a show, Mason said. Timing is important.
“A director may have a great comedy, but if he or she is on vacation in June, when we slot a comedy, then we can’t do it,” Mason said.
You won’t see a bevy of musicals during a single season. Royalties are much higher for these productions, Mason explained. Many musicals are available for a rental fee – you can’t buy the script – and the longer you have the material in hand, the more you pay. The price can go up if you use the provided prerecorded music.
The first show usually has name recognition. Hence “1984.” The second show, which falls in December, often has a holiday theme. Since no directors suggested a play with a seasonal slant, CSP is doing “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.”
“People tend to be looking for something to do when their kids are off,” Mason said.
Arthur Miller’s “The Price” comes in February. “It’s fantastic, I think,” said Brian Touchette, who is on the board and the selection committee. “Arthur Miller is a classic playwright. ... He does an amazing job of character development.”
“The Memory of Water,” a darker comedy that Touchette said is a “brilliant script,” is the featured play in April, and “Murder on Cue,” which Mason wrote and will direct, is the fundraiser. “We have a nice balance this season,” Touchette said.
Touchette is the set designer for “1984,” which has a steampunk ambiance. His job is to make sure the director’s vision is effectively brought to life, he said. But he’s also supervised the sound design, worked the lights, directed and acted. About the only thing that he hasn’t handled is makeup and costume design.
Switching tasks is not unusual at CSP, which encourages the volunteers to explore the different aspects of live theater. Boudreaux, in high school and college, spent most of her time backstage at the schools’ productions. That changed once she got involved with CSP, when she started acting.
“I don’t know what happened,” she said. She credits the welcoming environment. “The wonderful thing about theater is that people don’t care who you are or where you come from, as long as you come there and do the work.”
Doing the work, meanwhile, can take the volunteers away from everyday life, and that can be a good thing.
“Theater is one of the few places that when I’m there, I become so focused on what I’m doing that I’m not thinking about other things, such as problems in my life,” Touchette said. “I remember when my father was sick. The theater was one of the few places where I could immerse myself into something and keep going. Theater is so rewarding for me personally.”
Touchette got involved in 1993. He’s not unusual. Many of the 50 to 75 volunteers have been with the theater for decades, and they hold down the fort.
“It’s tough in today’s economy to get volunteers,” Mason acknowledged. “People rush home for work and it’s hard to grab a babysitter, or afford one.” Many can’t commit to working 12 hours on a prop that’s only on stage for 10 minutes.
Recruitment is not the only challenge. Older patrons make up the bulk of the audience. Nevertheless, depending on the play and the performers, younger faces are peering up at the actors. Michele Gildea used to come to see the actors she knew. “Every production I saw was so well done and professional,” she said. “Seeing your friends to this is an added delight.” They can catch every nuance, thanks to the theater’s small size.
Outreach efforts to schools and youth groups are limited because many volunteers have full-time jobs. CSP last year held a 24-hour playwriting festival, during which six playwrights worked overnight to create 10-minute original plays that were delivered to directors who cast actors. It was so successful that CSP is holding a second event in April.
“It’s really cool,” Mason said. “It forces the playwright to be really creative. It’s a neat process that allows directors who may have not directed for main stage to try their hand and get feedback.” The program received a grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts.
About 50 percent of the theater’s operating costs are covered by grants. Ticket sales and the fundraiser make up the rest. It is put to good use. The building was built in the late 1940s, and repairs are continual.
The building’s age is one issue. Parking is another. Previous owners of the Newark Shopping Center were fine with the theater’s audience using the parking lot. That’s changed since the center was sold and the new movie theater opened.
Another concern is the growing population of students who now occupy the surrounding homes that once held families. As a result, CSP is considering a move outside the city limits. The group would not venture far. About 80 percent of CSP’s mailers are sent to residents within the 19711 zip code.
“Our patrons know us,” Mason said. “They are part of the Chapel Street Players.”
The volunteers’ reward for all this hard work is the spirit of collaboration and the ability to bring a unique show – no two performances are the same – to an audience. “We do this out of love of what we’re doing,” Touchette said. “We do this to see and hear the audience’s reaction. It’s very gratifying.”
For more information on the Chapel Street Players, visit www.chapelstreetplayers.org.