Photograph by Pratt-Aquilani Portraits
Wesley Paulson, the theater’s executive director.
Rain at the beach isn’t great for sun worshippers, but for Clear Space Theatre, located a block off the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk, bad weather usually brings a full house. “People are in town looking for something to do,” explains Wesley Paulson, the theater’s executive director. And in the summer, Clear Space has a performance every day except Sunday—three musicals, including one for kids, in rotation throughout the week.
The area’s growing number of year-round residents guarantees that there’s never an off-season, Paulson adds, although the schedule retracts once summer wanes. And it’s not just retirees. “We serve a lot of younger families through our education programs,” he says.
There’s something for everyone in the regular season. Artistic director David Button gives audiences classic musicals, along with a newer Broadway show, a mix of comedies and dramas, then adds “something to put people into a thought-provoking mode.”
Opening this year’s lineup is just such an opportunity, an edgy drama, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” (Sept. 25-Oct. 11), set in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Most shows are mounted with a minimum of sets and props, a subtle reference to the company’s name.
With its year-round schedule, Clear Space is an asset to the local economy. Carol Everhart, president of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, says visitors who attend an unrelated event will often “come back or extend their stay just to come for a performance.” If they also eat at a restaurant or shop, the chamber estimates that one show could add as much as $100 per person to the local coffers—$200 if they stay overnight. In an area known for seasonal attractions, Everhart says, “Clear Space is a wonderful addition. It’s an economic gain.”
Clear Space was founded in 2004 on little more than faith by Doug Yetter and Ken Skrzesz, transplanted veterans of stage, opera and dance. They envisioned Rehoboth as a place where professional theater could thrive. Many retirees and summer residents are Actors’ Equity members or have been involved in the East Coast entertainment/media business.
The company of two debuted with a blockbuster production of “Oklahoma!” at the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center, using professional actors in major roles and local talent for the rest of the cast. “Hello, Dolly!” followed with similar success. Two years later, Clear Space became the company-in-residence at Cape Henlopen High School, producing Broadway musicals and teaching acting, dance and musical theater to adults and kids of all ages.
In 2010, the company moved to its present home in the former Epworth United Methodist Church. The only reminders of the building’s former life are four light fixtures and the sanctuary balcony, where company musicians now play. The intimate house seats 190, and no one is more than five rows from the stage. Skrzesz, who was executive director at the time, called it “an opportunity presenting itself at the perfect time.”
Since then, Skrzesz and Yetter have moved on. But the standards they set continue to inspire. “‘Oklahoma!’ was a really good foretaste of what the company was to become,” says Button, who joined Clear Space as a performer in “Hello, Dolly!” “[The founders] had very high expectations of what they wanted to bring to the area. Until they built up a good pool of (local) actors, they were bringing actors from New York and Baltimore.” Now, most roles are filled locally. “I am always amazed at the talent that comes out of the woodwork,” Button says. Exceptions are the occasional big-name guest artist and during the summer, when the grueling schedule demands full-time performers.
Community involvement has long been a part of Clear Space’s mission. For the past seven years, the company has worked with the H.O. Brittingham Elementary School in Milton, where students participate in a program that uses theater to promote literacy skills. Reading scores have improved, says Aleta Thompson, an administrator in the Cape Henlopen School District, along with students’ self-esteem and confidence.
A former theater teacher at Cape Henlopen High School, Thompson, together with Yetter, wrote a Department of Education grant for the program. Some youngsters, she says, have never experienced live theater. “You can imagine [parents] seeing their kids on stage, seeing them sing a solo. It’s pretty amazing.” Students also learn theater etiquette before attending one of Clear Space’s performances. Some also fill roles in main stage productions or attend one of the company’s summer intensives.
This year, Clear Space presented an adaptation of Nora and Delia Ephron’s “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” a collection of poignant monologues by female characters that connect memories of life’s watershed moments with their wardrobe. It was part of Beebe Healthcare’s breast cancer awareness fundraiser. Both nights sold out and put the hospital on track to purchase a second 3-D mammography machine. It has started a new tradition for Clear Space. This season, Button says, he hopes to partner with another nonprofit for a performance “that touches on a theme that reflects something that organization stands for.”