Anyone who’s moved house will understand Scott Mason, executive director of Chapel Street Players (CSP) in Newark, when he jokes that sometimes one of the biggest decisions you face in the transition is whether you’ll be able to afford replacing your ancient-but-functional avocado green refrigerator.
That refrigerator, for decades a fixture of the community theater’s basement intermission and reception space, stands as a testament to how carefully CSP has trod the line of frugality.
Since the former University Drama Group moved into the former church in 1969 after 35 years of performing in the University of Delaware’s Mitchell Hall and elsewhere (including a barn), life for the theater has consisted of creative fundraising and constant building renovations and upgrades.
For example, during the early days at Chapel Street, the group rented its space to two churches for Sunday worship in between busy seasons of four regular productions, an evening of one-act plays and the annual “FUNdraiser”—often a bawdy farce or cabaret-style revue designed to draw maximum attendance and help fill the theater’s coffers for the following season. It was typical for those worship services to be held with a completed or still-under-construction set in full view.
Combined with tight budgeting, a deep understanding of what their audience loves and a willingness to stretch resources to their limit, CSP has been able to pull off large-scale productions like The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof on the theater’s decidedly small-scale stage. Over the years, resourceful set designers fit two neighboring houses on the stage for Picnic, or a second story with a grand staircase (designed to support a burly actor charging up it multiple times during each performance) for Arsenic and Old Lace.
In short, the tiny space on Chapel Street has served the theater troupe well. But with dreams of preserving the theater’s legacy and an understanding that things in Newark—and on Chapel Street—are changing quickly, the group knew it was time for a move.
With construction underway for a brand-new building less than a mile up the road—and a capital campaign raising funds to help finance the final touches—Mason and his team of dedicated volunteers hope they can splurge a little when they move into their new home. If that includes a new refrigerator, he’s not complaining.
The Hunt For a New Home
Theater, by its nature, is a social endeavor. It’s meant to be enjoyed by groups of people sharing a space and watching live actors perform. It’s also meant to be welcoming. And over the years, it had become clear that the environment on the stretch of Chapel Street between Main Street and the railroad trestle—and in the theater building itself—was becoming less hospitable.
Foremost for many was accessibility. Built before the Americans with Disabilities Act was even imagined, the CSP team had moved the space about as close to full accessibility as it would ever get, Mason says.
“We just have the one handicapped bathroom and a handicapped ramp that brings you to the first floor or lower right by the stage. And that’s where you’re stuck. It is not user-friendly in so many ways,” he says. Meanwhile, a narrow and steep staircase to the basement intermission area was hard to navigate and created dangerous traffic jams.
Parking—an issue that dogged the theater since it relocated to Chapel Street—had only become more challenging in the last decade, Mason says. Public parking lots were available nearby, but at a cost and requiring a few blocks’ walk. Newark Shopping Center allowed theater patrons to park there on performance nights, but theatergoers had to traverse railroad tracks and a portion of the shopping center entrance with no sidewalks, making wintertime parking challenging.
And then there were the neighbors—student renters, with all the challenges accompanying their presence.
“I hate to sound like I’m criticizing the students because it’s not all students, it’s just a handful, but that makes for a bad time,” Mason says. “The experience for an audience goer is not just a show. Whether it’s the parking lot and the puddles or snow to going in the front door to getting your ticket to getting a drink to going to the bathroom to knowing what the show’s about, all of that is all one experience.”
Mason says the search for a new theater location began in earnest after he took over as president of the CSP board of directors in 2009. In the early part of the process, he met with local developers, including Jeff Lang, president and owner of Lang Development Group, as well as local politicians who might be able to provide guidance.
Some mentioned Bear and Summit as possible new locations, but that would take the theater too far from its Newark roots. Lang’s original proposal included a model he’s replicated successfully throughout Newark, with retail on the ground level and residential above, but that arrangement presented design issues that the CSP team felt were insurmountable, Mason says.
A Modest Proposal
Fast-forward nearly a decade. Lang’s enterprise had grown to encompass a growing portfolio of properties throughout Newark, and he had set his eyes on revitalizing the Creek View Complex, which sits on the banks of White Clay Creek across Paper Mill Road from the former Curtis Paper Mill site.
“[Lang] went to lunch with myself and my vice president, Frank Newton, and he said, ‘I’m developing this area. It is a concept of mine along Creek View Road, overlooking White Clay Creek and sort of this mini creek-front concept with a restaurant and theater,’” Mason says. “So, he said, ‘Would you consider if I build you a theater, and then in the swap of that is I take your [Chapel Street] land and then I’m going to build apartments?’ And we were like, ‘Hallelujah.’”
Lang’s proposal included a 6,000-square-foot theater built to the specifications of the CSP team. The theater group would be responsible for fitting out the auditorium with lights, sound, seating and stage equipment like a curtain—something CSP had never had at its Chapel Street location. The site also already includes Timothy’s restaurant, and Blue Crab Grill is set to open on the site adjacent to where the new theater will be located.
In addition, CSP acquires full ADA accessibility and the close, ample parking that had eluded it for so long, as well as benefits like snow removal that come as part of a larger development.
The carefully coordinated dance of approvals for Lang to build at the Chapel Street site, then for him to build the theater at Creek View, were completed in September, allowing both the theater and the four-story apartment building to proceed. January 2024 is the target date to have the new theater completed. Mason says he hopes to stage their first production in time for the June 2024 FUNdraiser.
Now for the Hard Part
For Lang, there’s obviously joy in partnering with a legacy arts organization to give them a fresh start.
“The beauty about the overall involvement of the [CSP] board and everybody else they brought into the process is they went through all of the concerns they had,” Lang says. “So, they started with, ‘Here’s all the stuff we want.’ And we said, ‘OK, can we fit it all in this box?’ The beauty is we got a lot of people on the front end helping with the design criteria to develop and work through some of the issues they’ve had in their present location.”
And that excitement is certainly shared by the CSP team.
“Having a theater built for us is unique in Delaware,” says Brian Touchette, CSP’s vice president of technical production and co-chair of the capital campaign for the new theater. “We’re going to have the newest theater in the state, and it’s built to be a theater. To have it built to be a theater is an absolute dream. And that we’re involved in the design of it and the construction of it—it’s like you’re building a new house and having it built to your specifications. It’s mind-blowing. It’s also overwhelming.”
One of the biggest challenges, Touchette says, is planning the fit-out of the new auditorium and knowing that the decisions the CSP team makes will have implications now and potentially for decades to come. Plans need to be laid for existing technology, but the infrastructure must also be able to accommodate upgrades and changes that might not even be considered now.
Mason knows paying for all of it will take perhaps more money than CSP has ever raised in a single capital campaign, with the current goal set at $750,000. Fortunately, the theater group has a healthy head start, with a $200,000 community reinvestment grant from the state of Delaware and several five-figure donations from longtime volunteers. In addition, there are plans for a gala fundraising events and smaller incentive programs like offering keepsakes from the old building—seats, bricks and pieces of the stage—for sale.
And while hitting or exceeding that $750,000 goal is the first step, all parties are casting their gazes beyond the footlights and imagining the changes this move could bring for CSP.
“We recognize this is an amazing opportunity to bring in audiences and build excitement,” says Touchette. “I’m excited to see over the next six months where we land on it.”
And to build that excitement, maybe even a new refrigerator.