Thursday, November 27, 2008

Community News - La Boheme

Donning my Jimmy Olson investigative hat, I posed a query to Lee Kimball. “One hanky?”

Kimball, general and artistic director did not miss a beat. “Two or three minimum. You can loan one to your neighbor.”

“La Boheme is the perfect opera for the first time opera goer,” says Kimball. “It has some of the most beautiful music written for voice; its theme is of youth and artistic risk, of experiencing love and loss for the first time and of sacrifices one makes for one's art. And, as we know, its plot was borrowed and turned brilliantly into the long running Broadway rock opera 'Rent.' ” The success of the stage show spawned the movie.

Giacomo Puccini's masterpiece is set in 1830 in the bohemian section of Paris; the iconic Latin Quarter: 1830 bohemians begat 1960 hippies. An author, a painter, a philosopher, a singer and a seamstress are huddled in a shabby apartment conspiring on how to forage for food and

The irony of OperaDelaware is that the organization is better known and respected more outside of the state than by its own residents.

“Consistently,” says Kimball, “we have artistic directors from around the nation attend our performances. Many of our leads have gone on to successful careers, including The Met. OperaDelaware is a showcase for amazing young talent."

All parts are paid in each production, including chorus. Anyone can try out. Kimball auditions not only in Wilmington but also in New York.

“This year we had one singer fly in from California for a 10 minute audition and fly back the same day. That is the reach and the recognition of our group.”

This fact also resonates on the power of regional theatre. Two La Boheme leads live elsewhere: North Carolina and Ohio.

Marcello, the painter, is 22-year old Jeffrey Chapman who grew up in Newark and studied at the UD. Youna Jang, the title character from last year's successful 'Madama Butterfly,' returns as Mimi, the seamstress. Her discovery by Kimball came about from his long time association with the graduate program of Temple University's Department of Music.

“Youna stunned audiences last year. We will be debuting another South Korean tenor from Temple, Injoon Yang, playing Mimi's lover, Rodolfo. This voice will soon be heard in theatres around the world, believe me.” (At his lover's tragic passing, Rodolfo cries out in anguish, weeping helplessly, thereby prompting the implementation of the aforementioned hankies.)

Kimball is proud of the fact that ticket sales - only 30 percent of the organization's budget - are up 25 percent this year. OperaDelaware is one of five beneficiaries of “Arts for Delaware's Future,” a fund headed by arts philanthropist Tatiana Copeland. Kimball reports the group has received a grant of $250,000.00 for a market survey by a major national firm. That's a lot of money. Kimball suggests the aim of the results will be to examine audiences, create focus groups and determine how to motivate various corporate stakeholders for the future of the arts in the state.

Performances are Nov. 2 at 2 p.m. and Nov. 7 and 8 at 8 p.m. The Humanities Forum is funding an hour long lecture on La Boheme before each show. OperaDelaware has connected with The Exchange Restaurant on Market Street for dinners.

Community News - Delaware Childrens Theatre

An aspiring singer at her first audition -- aged 6 -- had patiently waited her turn among the gaggle of young auditionees: some silent and apprehensive, some chatty and effusive, a few with that deer-in-headlights glare and clinging to a parent's hand.

Her name was called. With tentative steps, she made her way on stage.

"Mrs. Swajeski,” came a tiny, hesitant voice, “you're staring at me. I'm nervous.”

“Honey, what about if I turn my back to you? Would you feel more comfortable?”

A little nod of the head. “That would be good.”

Mrs. Swajeski turned her chair around, the other committee members followed suit, and the little girl sang like an angel.

“Honey,” exclaimed Swajeski, “that was absolutely breathtaking. Now, what if I turned around and you sing that song exactly the same way?”

“Alright. I feel better now.”

No one in the state has inspired more youthful actors, singers and dancers than Delaware Children's Theatre's own Marie Swajeski.

“We need to make that first audition experience uplifting,” she explains. “They need not to be terrifying.”

A testament to that philosophy, Swajeski and her volunteer staff see parents who acted as pre-teens on stage bringing their own children to experience the thrill of live theatre.

“Each production is woven with it's own particular spirit," she says. "It's not simply the 'art' of the performance. We teach friendship, discipline, commitment, pride, teamwork and life skills. We create warm memories for all those involved, no matter if they are on stage or crew. These experiences stay in their lives.”

It's true. I still remember lines from my first show at the Wilmington Drama League in 1957.

What is now DCT began more than three decades ago when Swajeski directed a touring group of children in "Peter Pan" with the then-Junior Division of the Wilmington Opera Society. In 1973, she founded Delaware Children's Theatre. Ten years later, The New Century Club became available. The building had fallen into disrepair and needed, well, everything.

Says Swajeski, “the greatest joy for me in this entire journey was to take our touring group into our own family theatre home.”

The mission of DCT was clear and remains unchanged, says Swajeski, and it has never been "kiddie theatre."

"Our shows must appeal to adults for they are the ones that drive their children to see us," she says. "Children in our productions yearly deserve the same high standards as adult theatre. That is our goal. Children play child parts. Adults play adult parts. And the child actors watch the adults perform and learn from them.”

The paint on the walls is a bit faded in this 145-year-old Victorian style edifice, now listed on the Register of National Historic Places, but the love and nurturing shine brilliantly, leading one child to comment, "Wow. This place is neat. How did you get a theatre in your house!”

Unlike most performing arts organizations, DCT relies mainly on tickets for operating costs. The price of $10.00 has not been raised in years.

Recently, three graduates of the theatre came back for a fundraiser. Tony award winner Johnny Gallagher (who played Tom Sawyer several times) entertained with friends Seth Kirschner and Adam Wahlberg. Kirschner is on TV consistently and Wahlberg does much NY professional work.

The constant stream of children wishing to audition is never a problem. What is, however, is the new pharmacy being built across the street which will rob the DCT of valuable parking. Committed long term corporate support is a holy grail that has yet to be unearthed. A building this old needs constant TLC.

Oops. I almost forgot. Swajeski said if I failed to acknowledge her faithful volunteers, she would visit her props room, retrieve the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West and "get after me."

Community News - First State Children's Theatre

If one thinks there are those more passionate about their craft than Michael Boudewyns, artistic director and co-founder of First State Children's Theatre, that person has yet to be unearthed.

Boudewyns' garrulous and engaging delivery conveys such an enthusiasm that one would consider oneself crazy for absenting oneself from his productions.

“When people go to live theatre, they want a great experience, a great meal, as it were. They want to be touched, to be moved, to be inspired. The shows we produce are family theatre geared for children. But this isn't fast food. We prepare a banquet for our guests.”

Michael, 43, and his wife Sara Valentine, 33, founded FSCT in 2004. Both are graduates of the Masters Program of the University of Delaware Professional Theatre Training Program and continue their association with the UD through the newly created Resident Ensemble Players, theatrical lucre to be the subject of a future Aisle Say.

The mission of FSCT is to stage classic plays and adaptations of classic literature with the focus on young audiences.

First State Children's Theatre presents

A Year With Frog and Toad

November 6-16

Tickets: 595-1100,

Study guide for teachers:

In 2004, the two also created a very popular Christmas tradition staged at Delaware Theatre Company. A live broadcast of Dickens's Christmas Carol aired over WVUD, the UD campus radio station.

Before Sara's immersion in the graduate program, I had the great fortune to work with her on stage at Rockwood Mansion in a Victorian-themed production. She's the Chase Utley and Elton Brand of actors, enhancing all around her. She engages both her fellow actors and the audience in her character's machinations. They see her think. They await eagerly for her next bon mot, her physical "take," or the next piece of exquisite stage business.

“Our company of professional actors are storytellers,” says Valentine. “We want to leave people with the warmth of being a better human being. And, we are playful. We all need that.”

The prospect of telling stories for a long time became brighter when the nascent group received a major push forward by being included in Delaware Theatre Company's season.

With this intent in mind - being all things to all children - Michael and Sara offer school-based theatre workshops, "beginning" Shakespeare and "Artist in Residence" programs. "A Year with Frog and Toad" tours the state as does their adaptation of "Alice In Wonderland."

The couple have a weeklong summer camp for children at DTC they call "Radio Days." Campers create, rehearse and record a classic radio drama, playing all the characters and providing their own sound effects. The pre-recorded play is then aired on WVUD. In many instances actors portray two to four different characters in the same play.

This is the third year of performing Frog and Toad. It is a story of friendship, emphasizing the important reality that people who are different can make really good friends. (Opening night invitations to Keith Obermann and Bill O'Reilly were returned unopened, acknowledging that the two deliver better theatre by not being friends.)

A four-piece combo is part of the Frog and Toad story; providing a wide diversity of genres: ragtime, dixieland and even a spontaneous hoedown.

FSCT's Web site offers a study guide for home schoolers and teachers to prepare. The guide suggests that the experience of seeing this show is a springboard for dialogue between possibly opposing parties.

Live theatre exploring interpersonal relationships has incalculable effects on young minds. Listen, if a frog and a toad can get along for a year, it should be all downhill for the rest of us!

Community News - REP The Hostage

Last week's seismic political events changed for all times election paradigms: how to reach voters, raise money, organize supporters, manage the media, track and mold public opinion. Many in Delaware, the U.S. and the world joyously welcome Barack Obama and hometown hero Joe Biden. At home, Delaware native Jack Markell bucked the entrenched Democratic monolith and beat a popular and well-respected insider.

Now, a visionary for change in theatre is quietly altering similar archaic models for professional theatre at the University of Delaware.

Last Friday evening the Resident Ensemble Players (REP) debuted their first production, Irish playwright Brendan Behan's "The Hostage" at the stunning Roselle Center for the Arts.

UD now joins the exclusive and elite fraternity of universities with their own professional acting companies. This prestigious list includes Harvard, UNC, Yale and Brown, among others.

Sandy Robbins, 58, Artistic Director of the REP and Director of Training for the MFA Program - the heralded Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) - explains: “The economy has made us re-think how professional theatre can be nurtured. Universities, with their libraries for dramatic research, their museums and their theatres are perfect laboratories for theatre's growth. We will work to engender professional companies in similar settings as we are substantiating our own.”

Robbins was recruited by then UD President Trabant in 1988 to bring his entire 12-member masters staff here from Wisconsin and set up shop in a former girls' gym on campus, now the Hartshorn Theatre. It was entitled the PTTP.

The model he created admitted an MFA class every four years. The students would choose one of three paths: acting, stage management or technical production. Admission to this graduate conservatory is quite competitive and most have gone on to professional careers.

“While The Hartshorn is a wonderful theatrical space,” says Robbins, ”there is no doubt that without the acclaim accorded the PTTP through the years, the Roselle Center would be only a dream. Our program led to major contributions for the destination center that we enjoy presently.”

Robbins' long-term strategic plan was for a professional company comprised of PTTP graduates. It was a merry coincidence his vision and that of incoming President Harker's creation of a global "Path to Prominence" for UD dovetailed. Delaware has long been considered one of America's best public universities. Harker wants more, as does Robbins.

“Operating like two sides of a single coin, the PTTP and the REP are each distinctive aspects of one artistic mission that manifests itself in a theatre organization that is greater than the sum of its parts,” Robbins says.

The REP has a salutatory influence on UD's undergrad programs. Three new classes in performance, theatre studies (literature) and theatre production will be taught by the pros of the REP.

Robbins' intense work over the past two decades will establish UD as a nationally important force in the performing arts and ensure that the Roselle Center becomes a vital regional cultural asset.

Robbins explains that The Hostage was selected to open this "brave new world," for it had “the appropriate celebratory spirit to launch our enterprise.” Behan, the author, writes that it is a play full of music and dancing and songs and, once in a while, a serious thought to take home.

It is also full of great possibilities for ensemble acting.

The major theme of The Hostage, set in the 1960 Border Campaigns of the I.R.A., tells of Irish youth caught up in and threatened by the conflicts of an older generation. Hmmm... sounds strangely similar to my senior year at UD, 1969, when another wartime acronym (SDS) Students for a Democratic Society, took over the Perkins Center for a weekend!

Community News - First State ballet theatre

n West Berlin, June 1987 came the immortal words “If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union; if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

While I always felt The Beatles and their anthem of “All You Need is Love” had more to do with turning stones to dust in the wind than President Ronald Reagan's pontifications, his speech was considered a turning point in the Cold War.

The era of perestroika was upon us, and Russian cultural groups began tours of the United States.

Leaving Moscow in 1991, one such group was a ballet company with an amalgam of performers from the St. Petersburg Ballet and The Bolshoi. Arriving in Philadelphia, they performed their first night, to wake up the next morning with news that their visas had been revoked and they were stranded. Some were accompanied by wives and children.

A Wilmington-based doyenne of the arts brought them here and reached out to her corporate friends to create what was to become The Russian Ballet Theatre of Delaware. Through the '90s, the group performed at The Grand such staples as Romeo & Juliet with Prokofiev's music and an annual Nutcracker. It was mainly through the largess of MBNA that this occurred.

The money dried up in the late 1990s, and the acclimated former Russian citizens became Delaware citizens. They were through with the tortuous assaults on the body and the low pay of the struggling artist.

That is, all but one.

Lead dancer Pasha Kambalov, 38, of New Castle County, was not finished. He and dancer Kristina Dippel, who was soon to be his wife, established First State Ballet in Newport in September 1999. Pasha explained the mission. “As in our name, our aim was to be Delaware's ballet company. We would train aspiring pre-professionals and professionals and stage major ballets and mixed-repertory productions in Delaware and beyond.”

Robert Grenfell, 61, of Brandywine Hundred, a retired Verizon executive and student of dance since childhood under the tutelage of the iconic Jamie Jamieson, had performed in all the productions since 1991. He agreed to become president of the non-profit board. Grenfell made a connection with Del Tech Community College in Georgetown. This led to other collaborations and FSBT has been performing statewide now for six years.

“It's been an amazing nine years of both growth and balletic excellence,” says Grenfell. “These kids - many of whom will go on to professional careers - perform to the delight of our audience. We have sent many of our students overseas in international competition.”

FSBT's biggest break came in 2003 with the invitation to base their teaching studio at The Grand. This affiliation, along with partners Opera Delaware and Delaware Symphony, solidified FSBT as an arts institution.

There are two major reasons for even more excitement. They have recently created a professional dance troupe.

“The idea,” says Grenfell, “is to select young (affordable) dancers and cast them in major roles. In a major market, they would be six years in training before they would be given a major role. Think the Blue Rocks at Frawley Stadium.”

The second reason is a certified first scoop for Aisle Say: choreographer Viktor Pilotnikov, a colleague of Pasha, is creating an original work for FSBT based on the sculptures of Charles Parks.

“Years ago,” says Grenfell, “Charles Parks did sculptures of some of our dancers. With this piece, his art takes life.”

In 1990, when Reagan returned to Berlin, former West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl commented, “He was a stroke of luck for the world, especially Europe.” A stroke of luck for us as well in the First State.

Community News - Music Man

Nasty rumors, reportedly begun in "Gary Indiana" were cascading through Arden like Mississippi flood waters lapping the shores of an Iowa town. Was there any truth to this? Was there “Trouble in River City?”

The packed house at last night's production of "The Music Man" bade "Goodnight My Someone" to that "Pick-a-little, Talk-a-little" meddlesome gossip.

New Candlelight Theatre continues building on its professional sheen with this cast of 36 who collectively smile more effervescently than any in recent memory. Our server, Dayna O'Brien, one of the busybody "Pick-a-Little" ladies, brought that smile to our table. Dayna also brought along her 3 daughters - all in the cast; all of whom had recently returned from a year road tour with "Gypsy."

The New Candlelight Theatre presents

The Music Man

Through Dec. 22

Tickets are $50 (Wed. - Fri.), $55.00 (Sat. and Sun.). $32.00 child (Thurs., Fri and Sun.). Group rates also available.

Cost includes buffet dinner and performance. For more information, call (302) 475-2313 or visit

With each show, owners Bob and Jody Miller enlist a number of actors with promising Broadway talent. For a 200-seat venue with a major monthly nut situated in the bohemian and certainly not metropolitan fields of Arden, this is remarkable. It can't be the money. Perhaps it's the respect and love and passion that the owners and staff project on the cast.

With the first sentence, it was evident that Kemper Florin (Marion, the most celebrated librarian since Andrew Carnegie) has Broadway chops. Her diction was as focused as the Hubble telescope. The Masters in Voice from the prestigious Eastman Institute in Boston was evident in the operatic deliveries of her character's iconic songs.

Composer Meredith Willson employs the recitative style of singing in the opening number "Rock Island." The text is declaimed in the rhythm of natural speech with slight melodic variation and little orchestral accompaniment. This is difficult enough with one person to achieve. In this all important opening number eight men sing recitative while they are choreographed to bounce and jerk (in sync) while sitting in a clickety-clackety moving train.

"Rock Island" involves teamwork and this group succeeded. On our night, the simulated sound effects of the train overpowered the men's banter and some of it was lost.

Equity actor Bob Miller portrays the charming con man Harold Hill. With the possible exception of Yul Brynner in "The King and I," no other character in musical film history is so symbiotically linked to his role than Robert Preston in "The Music Man." It is a law of nature that your mind will not allow a "delete" of Robert Preston. Miller has a strong clear voice and the energy. When Marion divulged that she knew all about him from the "git-go," but loved him anyway, more humanity on Hill's part would have added depth to the character.

Dann Dunn (Tommy Djilas) is a superb and effortless dancer. I was concerned he would be hitting the low hanging stage lights with the height he was ascending on his splits. Chorus dancer and Garnet Valley student Isabella Fehlandt was pure joy and beauty in her dancing. A duet between the two of them would have really energized the audience.

With upwards of 30 people to train, choreographer Jody Miller and director Jeff Reim enlist – and maximize - every square inch of stage. I've had the opportunity to see many NCT shows, and Miller does not fall into the trap of employing similar routines with succeeding shows. She is original and quite clever. "Shipoopi," the second act opener, was a show stopper.

Barbershop quartet is part of the enduring charm of "Music Man." Paul Weagraff, George Quinn, Patrick Ruegsegger and Allen Stupplebeen harmonize well, especially in "Lida Rose."

With the first show of 2009, NCT pays homage to founders Julian Borris and John and Lena O'Toole with "Forum." I was in the seats (or more aptly on the floor with laughter) in '69 with that show. Bring an oxygen tank to help you breathe during the hysterics.

Community News - Arts and Business thrive together

The arts of the community – our community – is at the very core of our social structure. Vibrancy and diversity in the arts cannot be disassociated from economic stability and growth.

A lot is at stake, and we've lost our edge.

Decades ago, DuPont would simply put up a “help wanted” sign and people would flock to our community. Fifteen years ago, credit card banks hoisted that same banner to a similar effect. DuPont and later MBNA particularly poured both lucre and intellectual talent in the form of board members into community and statewide arts organizations, effectively becoming patriarchs of the local arts.

The DuPont Company has subsidized The DuPont Theatre since its premiere in 1913. Sans Charlie Cawley, there would be a vacant space next to The Grand where now the baby grand resides. MBNA poured nearly a million dollars into the (now defunct) Russian Ballet Theatre in the late '90's. That beneficence had a ripple effect with other statewide corporations to get on the bandwagon. The ballet dancers who were stranded in the U.S. after the fall of the Berlin Wall had terrible dental hygiene. RBT Producer Marsha Borin called on her local dentist friends, and they donated a total of 39 root canals! Those were the salad days.

It's no longer a banquet. Today, we are facing challenges attracting new business to Delaware and getting them to invest in the arts.

Part of the due diligence of any corporation in the process of relocating is an evaluation of a location’s cultural fitness. A dynamic cultural atmosphere begets creativity in all professions and transcends income levels. Big companies often establish facilities in “world class environments” where the creative talent exists.

I am a native Delawarean who has been active in the arts for five decades. I have witnessed the dissolution. We are in danger of losing our most crucial economic advantage – being a talent magnet and attracting economic drivers here. Our community must grow its creative class.

Due to our corporate wealth and the “two degrees of separation” we enjoy, New Castle County could become “world class” like Austin, Texas, for example. Every night, the streets are alive in that city. Leaders and citizens alike embrace creativity there, which then becomes self-fulfilling. We need this concerted effort in our community.

One may not live in the city, but it remains the hub to our becoming “world class.” Wilmington Mayor James Baker talks the talk, but Wilmington after 5 p.m. remains the urban equivalent of Death Valley. There are no buildings for sale on Market Street from 10th to the Riverfront, bought up by the visionary Buccini Pollin Group and Preservation Initiatives. On the surface, that sounds good. The bad news is there are few retailers renting these storefronts and few people living upstairs. Our promised “Renaissance” has taken longer than The Middle Ages.

On the arts funding side, only through the recent infusion of a commitment of more than $3 million spearheaded by philanthropist Tatiana Copeland were the five foremost county arts institutions able to breathe some sigh of short term financial relief. Those happily bequeathed were Opera Delaware, The Grand, Delaware Theatre Company, Delaware Symphony and the Delaware Art Museum.

Convention and visitor bureaus around the state have embarrassingly meager funding engines. And for a state that attempts to sell its peerless arts institutions as tourist destinations, Delaware has ranked a paltry 49th of 50 states in tourism funding for the past 10 years.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to nurture the arts; one individual, one family at a time.
I am not suggesting we all stop what we're doing and write the great American novel or design a building. What I am advancing is the notion to be a pro-active partner in the community by giving support. It is a legacy for our children.

Taking children to arts events is a glorious way to grow the creative class from within.
Following is a very personal example of the cultural axiom, “Ya just never know.” Ten years ago, a singing ensemble in which I played a part had a gig at Hagley Museum. Lacking a babysitter that eve, my 10-year-old son was dragged along. For two hours while the group was performing, he stood transfixed by an entertainer twisting balloons. On the way home, he said, “I can do that.”

We bought him a pump, a study book and a bag of those long skinny balloons. Within six months, Grant was working parties making $50.00 an hour. The hysterical sidebar was that the kids attending the parties were the same age as this entrepreneurial balloon twister.

Fast forward to summer 2008. Grant is in Avignon in study. He and his peers go out in the evenings soaking in the French culture and delighting in the street performers. He e-mails to say, “Send me my balloon stuff. I can make some money.” Four weeks later his Facebook page is ripe with photos. There's my 20-year-old college student holding court in a 500 year old city square. On his head sits a foot high balloon hat as he fashions balloon poodles for the tourists! A bowler hat on the ground brims with euros.

“Ya just don't know” where promoting the arts – and enriching your child - will take both him and you.