BWW Interview: TEN QUESTIONS WITH... Scott Mason of Chapel Street Players
This week, I chatted with Scott Mason of Chapel Street Players about the current conditions under which local theaters are operating due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But first, a bit of Chapel Street history.
Chapel Street Players began in 1934 under the auspice of The University of Delaware's Drama Group composed of 35 UD faculty members and staff, having a stated purpose of presenting live entertainment to the student body, faculty, staff, and the greater Newark community. The University Drama Group presented its first play in the Spring of 1935 at Mitchell Hall. In 1936, townspeople were added to the group.
UDG co-existed with other dramatic organizations connected with the college, but was not entirely separated from the still operating quirky student group, E-52. UDG was one of the first area theaters to experiment with dedicated children's theater. During World War II, UDG produced a variety "soldier show" for the sailors at the nearby Navy base in Bainbridge, Maryland.
By 1965, membership grew past 150 patrons and artists, and the need for new performance space arose. UDG patrons, Sally and Sigurd Anderson, offered their barn for intimate theater-in-the-round experiences, but fundraising success and the desire for additional seating led to negotiations with the State of Delaware for the use of Maxwell's barn at the Walter S. Carpenter State Park on Route 896, where shows were performed from 1973 through 1977.
However, with increasing events for the group and the continuing rise in enrollment for the University, the need for UDG to secure a permanent home, sooner rather than later, became apparent. Long-time UDG guiding-force, Howard Kuscher, located a church for sale at an attractive price - just $32,000 - which was suitable for renovation into a 175 seat theater. While approvals from the City of Newark were obtained, as well as receiving non-profit status from the IRS, fundraising master, Howard Turner, worked diligently to secure the funds necessary to purchase the property. As the purchase date neared, negotiations with the Seller took place proffering an agreement for a 10% down payment, and an additional seven months for full purchase. Finding themselves still $14,000 short after the seven months, UDG successfully navigated the difficult maneuvers of securing a mortgage; thus, taking possession in February of 1969. Renovations were completed shortly thereafter, and in November 1970, the group presented its first show in its new home under the adopted operating name The Chapel Street Players. The purchase debt was paid off in short order, with a mortgage burning held on October 16, 1975.
Several renovations have occurred over the years including replacement of the small garage behind the theater with a shop and flat storage building, and extending the main building to add a small foyer for the box office. General upkeep and modernization of a building its age is constantly on-going.
In UDG's 50th anniversary book, Ron Knox stated: "It is a continuing source of wonder to see how a production grows from words on paper to opening night. The dedication of the company as it comes together for the first time and grows into a show is something that must be experienced to appreciate. We are called "community," but the only difference between our theater and so-called "professional" theater is that we can't get paid in dollars. I believe we have as much dedication and professional commitment as any Broadway troupe. And that's what makes it work - our willingness to commit time, talent and energy for the sheer pleasure of it! Best of all, anyone can be a part of this world. It takes only interest, and a willingness to work hard. The doors of Community Theater are always open."
MY TEN QUESTIONS WITH...Scott Mason of Chapel Street Players
Q: What was your theater working on at the time of the shutdown in March? If you had a show running at the time of the shutdown, will you reboot it for a later date?
A: We had three shows in the cue. At the end of March, we were to hold our annual George Cope 24 Hour Play Festival. At the end of April, we were to start the run of our third show of the season, Moon Over the Brewery. The show was approaching tech and the set nearly finished. In June, we had scheduled the comedy, The Odd Couple, male & female versions in rotation, as our annual Renee G. O'Leary FUNdraiser. Both shows were cast and started rehearsing.
Q: Did you have shows/events planned for April, May, June? What are the current plans for those shows/events?
A: If we are allowed to open our doors in July, the George Cope 24 Hour Play Festival previously scheduled for March will be held. Moon Over the Brewery has been moved to September, and The Odd Couple has been moved to November. We will then do a new style "calendar" season for 2021 (instead of what would have been 2020-2021 season) running from January to December 2021.
Q: What are your plans if your theater can't open until July or August?
A: We made a unanimous board decision to move our two remaining big 2019-2020 season shows all the way to the fall to put the crews and casts' mind at ease and to suspend rehearsals for a while. We found ourselves every week reassessing the notion "can we open after May 15?" "can we do it in June"- etc. etc., and it was draining for the board and our volunteers. Our hope was that by postponing for several months we could more definitively announce new dates for the shows. Therefore, we are still relatively okay if not opening until July or Aug.
Q: Does your theater runs summer camps, do you think they'll still happen?
A: Our theater doesn't run theater camps, so that's at least one less worry.
Q: Any idea of the monthly financial loss with the shutdown? (You can give budget percentages if you don't want to disclose dollar amounts.) If applicable, have your lending institutions or creditors given you guidance/assistance to ease the burden?
A: Fortunately, CSP is not indebted to any lenders nor do we have any paid staff or rent. We turned off every electric draining appliance, canceled trash service, etc., and with the property closed, our utility bills are next to nothing. Fortunately, with the monies from our subscriptions, yearly DDOA grant, and generosity of donors, we are currently solvent enough to cover the bills while not generating any revenue.
Q: Will your theater seek additional funding specifically relating to COVID-19? If already applied for, was the process easy or difficult? Have you received a response?
A: We currently have elected not to seek any funding right now or for the future (unless the timeline of opening goes on and on) because we are aware that though funds are available, we truly don't need them as of now, and we know there are other non-profits in the community, as well as the greater state, that truly need available funds. We are especially concerned about sister organizations who need to rent space or who have paid staff that might be out of a job now.
We also chose to donate all of our remaining food and beverages from our concessions area to a local women's shelter in Newark- the Emmaeus House. Most of it would have expired by the time we would have an audience again, and we did not want it to be thrown out. They were thrilled to receive the donation.
Q: Are your Artists creating art in some form during this time? Feel free to give examples & links if you'd like to share.
A: Mainly the one artist to be doing such from CSP is me as the Dame of which you are well aware. I did a live stream show on May 2 and CSP (as well as two MD theatres: Milburn Stone and Havre De Grace Opera House) were kind enough to promote it on their respective media.
Q: Do you know if your Artists are keeping in touch with each other - boosting morale, sharing recipes, etc.?
A: That is happening to a great degree. Most of the board and regular volunteers that are on FB and other social media post drinks, dinners, words of hope, etc. on line. The cast of Moon Over the Brewery is still rehearsing periodically over zoom. I check in (as director) with my two casts for The Odd Couple, and as President, I have reached out to those older volunteers not on FB by the old fashioned phone call! Many of the various circles of friends at CSP have had zoom happy hours, game nights, or some sort of communication.
Q: Could your theater benefit by a phased reopening while following CDC guidelines of social distancing? Do you think your audiences would mind wearing masks and sitting apart during a live performance or would audiences rather wait it out until allowed to gather in groups of 50 or more without restrictions?
A: That is a tough question to answer simply. One, we only seat 160 people so in order to keep space, it would cut down on our audience size greatly- BUT HONESTLY- we are willing to do so if that is the only way we can open in phases. That being said, a greater concern (and I think one that is certainly not unique to CSP) is that our patrons skew "older" - the average is 55+- and we believe that they may be worried (supposedly being at greater risk) to return to any public gathering for a while regardless of spacing, masks, etc.
Whether or not patrons would feel comfortable wearing a mask is more of their personal choice, as one can see on a national scale that some people are refusing to wear them- period. It's a tough call- even if we only let people in if they are wearing a mask, what happens if during the show they take it off? Do we cause commotion during performance and have an usher or management confront the person? Oye, it could be quite chaotic. And what about performers? Should they wear masks as well? And how does that impact being understood by the audience? If a patron is told to wear a mask, they may take offense if the performers are also not doing so.
Q: Do you believe your theater will come through this difficult time stronger? How so?
A: I think we will be stronger. The pandemic forced the board to make difficult decisions (and we thought picking the season was tough!) and work even closer together, and more united in spirit than ever before. We feel a greater sense of community - not only for those that make up the CSP- but the community in which we "live" and the community that is our patrons. The crews and the casts of the suspended shows are all still anxious to stay together and make sure that the "show must go on." Many of the crew and cast members applauded the decision of the board to push our remaining season so far back and were grateful we made such a decisive one. I believe that there is a greater or "stronger" faith in the management of the theater, and the care that we show to the welfare of our volunteers and patrons. As a fully volunteer run organization we have always been "in it together" and now more than ever that spirit is continuing to thrive and grow stronger so that, when life gets back to some semblance of "normal," the arts, and specifically CSP, will indeed carry on.
CHAPEL STREET PLAYERS
27 N. Chapel Street
Newark, DE 19711