BWW Interview: TEN QUESTIONS WITH...Kathy Buterbaugh -Wilmington Drama League
The creation of Wilmington Drama League is interesting, to say the least, and its perseverance to create under any circumstance is historic. Look on WDL's website under the ABOUT tab, and you'll find these tidbits:
-- In the late 1920s, a loose group of Delawareans begins to meet in each other's homes to read plays and perform for each other. Calling themselves "The Wilmington Drama League," the members soon make a proposition: to share their fun and enthusiasm with a live audience in a real theater. After some hat-passing, they build a rickety stage at the old Lea Mills in Wilmington. They begin to rehearse their first play, the comedy Brewster's Millions, which opens on December 13, 1933 (in true "the show must go on" fashion, two audience members are recruited to fill in for snow-bound actors).
-- By the late 1930s, after too many wobbly coat racks cause pileups and one fire escape is carried away by a train, it is clear the League needs a new home. Mortgage money is unavailable, but that doesn't stop them - they raise $60,000 and break ground on the building that remains the home of the Wilmington Drama League to this day.
-- Throughout the years, the building has evolved to become an excellent house for theater. The lobby has been expanded, the stage has been overhauled, rehearsal areas have been created, and state-of-the-art lighting, sound, and projection equipment has been installed.
-- And we still adhere to the DIY principles of those early years. Volunteers handle everything production-related, from building and painting our often elaborate sets to ushering and bartending to directing, acting, and teching our shows.
-- We are able to focus on drama and theatre education through the Chrysalis Players, our children's theatre wing, and Youth Acting Classes. We strive to be a beacon of the arts in our community by providing inexpensive (sometimes free!) theatre, by displaying the artwork of local artists and by providing a performing space to many arts and charitable organizations. In lieu of monetary compensation, our volunteers are fueled by their love of the arts, the joy of creation, and the pursuit of high-quality theatre.
Does it surprise anyone familiar with WDL that not even a pandemic can stop it from creating art, engaging audiences of various ages, care for its membership, and (virtually) present theatrical experiences for the community? And, because of WDL's long-standing position in the Delaware theater community, I thought it only fitting for it to be first in my series of interviews with small to mid-size theaters within the State exploring the ever-changing unknown landscape of live performance during the COVID-19 crisis.
For the series, I pose the same ten questions in the hope readers learn that even though each theater operates through varying methods, the stage pin that connects them together is the real need for in-person, live events. While the lack of ticket buying audiences greatly impacts a theater financially, the absence of sharing a personal interaction through live performance fractures an Artist's soul.
"I love it when you go to see something, and you enter as an individual, and you leave as a group. Because you've all been bound together by the same experience." a?? Tom Hiddleston
TEN QUESTIONS WITH...
Kathy Buterbaugh, Office Administrator & Production Manager - Wilmington Drama League
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: The day Governor Carney issued a state of emergency was also opening night for Falsettos. The original order barred gatherings of over 100 people. Our "black box" set up for this particular show seated only 65, so even including cast and crew we would have been well under the limit. Nevertheless, the board of directors discussed the matter by email and decided to cut the run short for the safety of cast, crew and audience. So opening night became also closing night. Noises Off was deep into rehearsals at the time, as were two Pillow Plays. Matilda was cast and poised to begin rehearsals. Our firm intent is to produce the remaining performances of Falsettos and the run of Noises Off sometime before the end of the summer and have tentatively scheduled Matilda for September. Whatever the time frame, we are committed to providing these three directors and their casts a chance to realize the fruits of their labors.
Q: Did you have shows/events planned for April, May, June? What are the current plans for those shows/events?
A: In the greatest of ironies, March is generally a gateway to one of the busiest times of year at the Wilmington Drama League. Noises Off would have run in April/May and Matilda in June. Our programming is extensive and diverse, so many shows outside our mainstage season have also fallen by the wayside. Pillow play productions (short plays designed to introduce small children to live theatre) were scheduled for April 4 and May 2. In addition, WDL has symbiotic relationships with many local dance companies and school performing arts departments. We provide affordable use of a professionally appointed theater, and have many amazing regular renters. There were 13 days of rentals on our calendar from April 4 to June 13.
Q: What are your plans if your theater can't open until July or August?
A: Our general mindset is to follow guidelines from the Governor and health experts, but no one can predict when things will be safe to reopen, even at a bare bones level. So making plans based on a variable which understandably changes with situations and statistics (not to mention human behavior!) is essentially futile. It would involve 100 different proposals for 100 different "what if" scenarios. Rather, our approach has been to develop strategies but always be ready to "call an audible" on the field. For all intents and purposes, the original date of May 15 is the only official one on the table at this time. If/when it gets pushed forward or back, we will readjust. Right now our firm intent is to present Falsettos, Noises Off and Matilda whenever is safe and when the necessary "altered social practices" are in place. Before the shutdown, the board had voted on the 2020/2021 season. Sometime in May the marketing committee will stage a "season reveal" with only titles, no specific dates. It will essentially be a list of shows we have decided to do in the foreseeable future, perhaps stretched over two seasons if needed.
Q: Knowing WDL runs summer camps, do you think they'll still happen?
A: WDL has a significant youth program, so we will be doing whatever we can to provide programs as soon as it is safe. I do have hopes that both the Jeff Walker One Act Festival, which annually involves 75-100 youth in directing, performing and technical capacities, and our Summer Stock Camp will survive this pandemic, even if they happen in August. But the most important thing is to get through this together and live (singularly and as an organization) to fight another day!
Q: Any idea of the monthly financial loss with the shutdown? If applicable, have your lending institutions or creditors given you guidance/assistance to ease the burden?
A: The total financial loss would be in direct correlation to the length of time we are shutdown, of course. For instance, if we present no shows, rentals or programs through August (Yikes, say it isn't so!), the Wilmington Drama League would stand to lose net income equal to 25% of our annual budget. WDL has in the past had loans or mortgages, but we have worked hard creatively and fiscally to currently be debt free. The struggle is still real, as we need to maintain the building and meet payroll while incurring regular monthly expenses. But our contractors have been very flexible. For instance, with the building shut down, there has been no need for commercial cleaning services or regular trash pickup, so we have paused our contracts in those areas.
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 have applied for two different programs designed for our type of business and are looking into others. The process was relatively simple and user friendly, especially in comparison to some more complicated grants. We have received our first response, in reference to the PPP (federal Payroll Protection Program). Paperwork should be arriving in a few days.
Q: Are your Artists creating art in some form during this time?
A: Many WDL artists have adapted live theater to the necessary forms of technology required for these times. Live concerts and Zoom readings happen regularly. As an organization, we are producing a series called Shutdown Showcase, with weekly episodes for all ages. https://www.facebook.com/WilmingtonDramaLeague/
Many of our costumers are also part of a Facebook sewing group creating masks for healthcare workers, and we have donated much of our fabric and sewing supplies to the cause.
Q: Do you know if your Artists are keeping in touch with each other - boosting morale, sharing recipes, etc.?
A: WDL casts often form Facebook groups during the rehearsal process for sharing and communication purposes. I've been overwhelmed at the number of casts who are getting together during this time, reminiscing, having watch parties, and renewing the bond that got them through challenges on the way to their respective shows. There are hangouts and Facebook threads totally devoted to missing each other and WDL, the place they called their "second home". Even old friends are coming together through this latest challenge. There was a post with video about a group of friends from the 1990's who recently celebrated a faux wedding with one whose wedding date was last Saturday and had to be postponed. They live all across the country now, but partied over Zoom. Under the post was #wdl4eva! It was heart warming and encouraging- how we as a society can stay positive, and that bonds formed through creating art can be everlasting!
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: We have all been so starved for human connection, I would hope it would partially serve as a renewed appreciation for the live storytelling that is theatre. We've literally watched EVERYTHING on streaming services, right? There are those audience members who will feel safe enough to sit apart, wear masks and be patient about visiting the bar or restrooms. We do, however have many older patrons. And I feel as though we have to develop a way for them (and everyone) to share live theatre with as little risk as possible. Much of our shutdown discussion is in the direction of safety measures, for actors, crew and audience. We can build it, and hope they come. I know there will be some who will. And we hope and pray for a time that we gather with no restrictions, but never at the risk of anyone's health!
Q: Do you believe your theater will come through this difficult time stronger?
A: We will undoubtedly be stronger! Society may have collectively been sick of hearing it in 2012, but "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" is true. It's a choice though, and we have made it. In times of extreme hardship, art can heal. During WWII many theaters were dark. But WDL fought to stay open, as a place where folks could, for a short while, engage in a story brought to life and escape. We recently discovered a picture of a pickup truck with a piano and a small dog in the back of it on Wilmington's Market Street. It shows members of the Wilmington Drama League helping to sell war bonds in their offstage time. I think the same kind of "get involved" and "do what it takes" attitude is part of what makes lovers and makers of art, and I especially believe it of those who make up our WDL family. We've been here 87 years, and we will be here 87 more years and beyond!
Wilmington Drama League
10 W. Lea Boulevard
Wilmington, DE 19802
Consider donating to Wilmington Drama League: http://www.wilmingtondramaleague.org/producers-campaign/