The Freeman Arts Pavilion, formerly known as the Freeman Stage, has big production plans as it books performances for the coming year.
In 2021, the Freeman Stage became the Freeman Arts Pavilion. But the Selbyville event venue did more than change its name. The stage moved to a new home on purchased land adjacent to the existing site, increasing its footprint.
The Joshua M. Freeman Foundation, which operates the venue, is just getting started. The nonprofit arts organization is currently raising funds for a $27 million facility with a covered stage and 4,000 seats—more than a quarter of which will be under a roof.
The increased space has made an immediate impact. In 2021, more than 80,000 people attended live performances, despite the pod-style seating that maintained social distancing. The attendance figures beat pre-pandemic figures. In 2019, the patron number was 61,294.
The new layout was complete in just six months. “As we finished the season, we did a survey, and the feedback was great,” says Patti Grimes, the foundation’s executive director. “We got a lot of suggestions for improvements that we can make.”
For the 2022 season, the venue will have another exit, additional restrooms and paved paths instead of crushed stone. There also will be more concessions, a hit last year. Attendees can now sit at picnic benches with dinner before the show.
Grimes hopes that pods won’t be part of the 2022 schedule. However, the Freeman is dedicated to following CDC protocols. “We were probably one of a dozen arts organizations in 2020 to feature live performances, so we learned a lot about how to do things safely,” she says.
Grimes and Michelle DiFebo Freeman, the foundation’s founding chair, are also committed to bringing the arts to the community. The Joshua M. Freeman Foundation is a tribute to Michelle’s husband, who died in a helicopter accident in 2006. The former Green Beret was the president of the Carl M. Freeman Companies, which developed Sea Colony, and a noted philanthropist who loved the arts.
In late 2007, Michelle approached Grimes about creating a summer arts program at Bayside, one of the company’s communities. At the time, Grimes was vice president of marketing and customer relations for the developer. The women came up with a list of family-friendly entertainment options, including music, movies and children’s activities.
Freeman gave Grimes the go-ahead in March 2008. Despite never having handled entertainment programming previously, Grimes didn’t hesitate. The Freeman Stage debuted in June. Attendance that year topped 14,000.
The Freeman has become known for bringing in national headliners, including the Beach Boys, Lyle Lovett, Melissa Etheridge and the Indigo Girls. But it equally emphasizes local ballet, theater and other performing arts groups.
“It’s not just one genre,” Grimes agrees. “We look forward to continuing the diversity of our program.”
The future pavilion will make that even easier to do. But patrons need patience. Fundraising and construction take time—up to six years.
“Over the years, our patrons have told us they’d love to see an extended season— either in May or into the fall,” Grimes says. “With a covered stage, that may be possible.” And, with Grimes at the helm, it’s completely doable.