You can’t help but feel happy around Marie Swajeski. Maybe it’s her positive energy. Or the way she looks you in the eye, as if you’re the only person in the room.
Founder and artistic director of The Delaware Children’s Theatre in Wilmington, Swajeski has been directing shows for 39 years. She has staged more than 100 musical productions. Forget that she calls her age “an unlisted number.” This 5-foot force of nature has no plans to retire. “I still have work to do,” she says. “I look upstairs. When He tells me it’s time to stop, I’ll stop.”
Swajeski, who directs “Jesus Christ Superstar” this month, commands attention. She’ll deliver an acting lesson on the spot and correct your diction when she feels like it. She’s a legit director, and she doesn’t need a stage to prove it.
Think of Swajeski’s career as a four-decade-long standing ovation. She has ignited a love for theater in countless young and not-so-young performers, and she has given them a place to shine at a historic building, built in 1893, on Delaware Avenue.
“People frowned upon children’s theater in the beginning,” says Jeffrey Santoro, a stalwart volunteer, “and she proved the naysayers wrong.” The theater celebrates its 40th anniversary next year.
“Marie has had such an impact on Wilmington’s culture and beyond,” says Vincent Poppiti, who twice played the role of Scrooge in TDCT’s “A Christmas Carol.” “She could teach anything involving stage performance.”
Swajeski’s protégés include Johnny Gallagher and Jennifer Zetlan. Gallagher won a Tony for his performance in “Spring Awakening.” For that show, he reserved a seat for Swajeski at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Zetlan, who earned a principal role in “Boris Godunov” at the Met in November, attributed her success to The Delaware Children’s Theatre.
“That’s where I learned really everything I know about being onstage,” Zetlan said in Opera News magazine.
Swajeski is training her successors. She knows her reign as leader won’t last forever. But her legacy will, says Poppiti. “And people will forever know that the theater and Marie are one and the same spirit.”