New home for Chapel Street Players?May 03, 2021 07:55PM ● By Steven Hoffman
After more than a decade of work, Chapel Street Players is planning to move to a site south of White Clay Creek, off Paper Mill Road. It’s less than a mile but a huge difference for patrons and performers.
“It had become a challenge,” Scott F. Mason, president of the Newark community theater, said of producing plays from a converted church at 27. N. Chapel St.
The building is a choppy warren of retrofitted spaces. The audience area has been made handicap-accessible, but irregular steps make navigating among seats a bit awkward. The lounge for intermission, refreshments and the main restrooms is down a steep and cramped staircase.
Parking is a schlep, in spaces shared by the Newark Shopping Center. There have been problems with vandalism and graffiti, even with a $13,000 fence surrounding the property.
Other problems involve rowdy, drunken students who live and party nearby, hurling slurs and wet cups at patrons. Or “you can’t hear actors on stage because there’s a party next door,” he said.
“It’s an environment thing. Patrons don’t feel comfortable. We have lost subscribers because of it.”
As Mason explains on the theater website, “In a nutshell, if the city approves the proposal, Chapel Street Players would relocate to a brand new theater facility, built by the Lang Development Group, just north of our current location.” Lang plans to build apartments where the theater is now.
“We would still be in the city limits to maintain our status as ‘Newark’s Official Community Theatre,’” he continued. ‘And did I mention, there would be free parking right at the theater!?”
A prologue of theater history
Chapel Street Players began in the 1930s as the University Drama Group, first performing at the University of Delaware’s Mitchell Hall. For three years, it produced plays in a barn off Old Paper Mill road, on the north side of White Clay Creek, before moving to Chapel Street in 1968.
“If all this comes to pass, we’ll look across the water from the old place to the new place,” said Renee G. O’Leary, the participant with the longest tenure with the theater, going back to Mitchell Hall.
The church building dates back to the 1950s, with all the issues of an aging structure, including an antiquated sprinkler system and deteriorating seats donated decades ago by the DuPont Playhouse.
Mason joined Chapel Street in 1989 and served as president twice before taking a break in 2004 to devote more time to his job. When he returned in 2009, it was obvious that the theater was no longer on “a very lovely street,” he said. “It just got out of control. We had to move.”
Board members explored multiple options, including the Newark Shopping Center, the College Square Shopping Center, storefronts along Main Street and, very tentatively, the suburbs.
Early in 2019, Mason and board member Frank Newton met with Lang President Jeff Lang and Lang Vice President Chris Locke for lunch at Timothy’s of Newark, the most prominent business in the complex that is planned for the new theater. Months of talks ensued, with the first paperwork filed with Newark last November.
‘Something for the community’
“Jeff and I have lived in Newark for 45 years and want to do something for the community,” Locke said of the Creekvew complex that will, if everything is approved, include Chapel Street’s new home, gallery and studio spaces, another restaurant, 103 apartments and offices.
“We’re excited about revitalizing a location that’s been part of Newark history for 175 years,” he said. “We’re looking forward to a new space to attract young professionals who want to stay in Newark, don’t want a house and would enjoy easy access to the restaurants and the arts, with the great views of the creek and the reservoir.”
Once approvals are in place from the city planning commission and city council for the entire complex, and building permits for the theater are likewise approved, Locke anticipates construction of the theater to take less than a year, and Mason anticipates a month or three to move in. Locke said it’s reasonable for Chapel Street to anticipate that it could open in a new home in the fall of 2022.
“We’re trying to figure out how to say goodbye to the building for out patrons and subscribers and have something spectacular to open the new space,” Mason said.
Chapel Street’s main building and its scene shop behind it total about 6,000 square feet. It also owns half of the duplex next door, used as office and rehearsal space.
The negotiations with Lang call for a cash-free swap. Lang will build a 6,000-square-feet building designed as a theater, and Chapel Street will own the new building and the land under it. Lang will get Chapel Street’s land on Chapel Street, raze the theater and that duplex half and build apartments.
Lang is planning 12 apartments there in a “very beautiful and contemporary design,” Locke said.
Plans for the new space
Even though Chapel Street won’t owe money to Lang, and Lang is providing a building that’s fit for occupancy, Mason anticipates a capital campaign of at least $75,000 to outfit the building with seating – that’s $35,000 alone – and specialized theater equipment. Campaign incentives might include bricks from the old building or naming rights to seats.
Board members plan to use the move as a time to purge old items, and Mason anticipates a giant yard sale (“eight houses worth of furniture!”) or giveaway.
Much of the new space is inspired by the Wilmington Drama League, Mason said, which has a larger stage, a ramped aisle for accessing seats and a large lobby for mingling at intermission. Dressing rooms are inspired by the Havre de Grace Opera House in Maryland.
The design is only in sketches and could change, but it now calls for a stage that’s 20 feet deep and 40 feet wide, up from the current 17 by 30 feet. The new stage will have wings – areas to the sides hidden to the audience – to hold waiting performers and incoming set pieces.
That roominess will allow for more complicated productions. The new building will also allow for more productions, Mason said, up from the current four main-stage plays, the Renee G. O’Leary Fundraiser and the George Cope 24-Hour Playwriting Festival.
The current theater seats 160, and the new theater will seat up to 200.
The future and the past
The memory wall of photos of past Chapel Street participants will be succeeded in the new space by a plaque, he said, and a tree will be planted outside in memory of past participants. The new lobby will have some history in the form of the church’s old marquee.
That history is important to O’Leary. When asked what she considers to be the most important aspect of the new building, she immediately responded “memories,” explaining there should be some way to highlight participants.
As for the old building, she is most nostalgic about the costume room. “A lot of my life hangs on the rack,” she said. “My clothes, clothes I wore for shows.”
Mason is pleased that the new site “keeps performing arts in the city and will sustain the theater way beyond our time.”
Even though Chapel Street Players is moving to Creekview, off Paper Mill Road, the group’s name won’t change because its paperwork is already complicated by its incorporation as the University Drama Group.
Mason takes comfort in that knowing that section of Paper Mill Road more than a century ago was called the North Chapel Street Extension. So in a way, Chapel Street is not leaving Chapel Street at all.