Children’s Theatre needs a new home

DOVER — With the closing of the Schwartz Center for the Arts this summer the venerable Children’s Theatre is in need of large-scale performance space.

The nonprofit group, founded in 1995, has had a long partnership with the Schwartz, holding four shows a year there as well as Dover Days performances and some special events since 2003. The closing June 30 of the historic theater on South State Street left the youth drama program without a large-scale venue for its productions. The theater group practices at Reith Hall on Governor’s Avenue in downtown Dover and uses storage space in an adjacent building.

“We’re searching for a new venue like anyone else is who used the Schwartz,” said Patricia Beetschen, president of The Children’s Theatre, Inc.

Last week’s weeklong day camp culminated in a show for parents and friends that would have been held at the Schwartz; instead, it took place in Reith Hall, which has a capacity for about 70 chairs compared to the 550-seat theater on State Street.

While colorful props and extensive scenery filled the hall, and children buzzed about rehearsing scenes, the room could not compare to the Schwartz’s production-level atmosphere.

Aurora Fennemore, left, and Lillian Truitt dance in The Princess Knight at the Children’s Theater in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Children’s Theater past president Sharon Crossen said the historic theater’s acoustics are great and the building is elegant. “You don’t get that kind of ambiance anywhere else for $10 a show — that’s what we charge,” she said.

Ms. Beetschen said, “It’s a venue some children would never have an opportunity to experience and on a real stage with tiered seating. It’s an opportunity they would miss out on.”

Formed in 1995 by Ted and Marge Ressler, Jim and Marina Knipe Rogan and Anne Evans, the Children’s Theatre first met in Wesley’s Wells Theater and relocated to Reith Hall in 2010. Ms. Beetschen got involved in 1996 and Ms. Crossen in 2003.

The 22-year-old program draws an average of 25 to 60 children and young adults in its shows depending on the production. Musicals require more members, Ms. Beetschen said.

About 23 kids attended last week’s camp with three to four newcomers to the program participating in activities held Monday through Friday from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Dressed in medeival costumes with props setting the stage for “The Princess Knight,” the children and adolescents Friday had extended camp hours as they rehearsed scenes for the main show held later that evening.

In back row from left, Cameron Taylor, Brodie Sapp, in front from left, Noelle Snyder, Logan Babenko, Alexia Nadel and Lyla Snyder in The Princess Knight at the Children’s Theater in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

In addition to theater exercises, the camp offered various activities, from sidewalk chalk to face painting to keep the kids interested, Ms. Crossen said. During a break Friday, students lined up in four groups as a peer led them in an activity designed to build team building, memorization and coordination. As they sang a song, campers moved their hands and bodies to follow the lyrics, increasing the tune and movements until they hit warp speed and each group’s verse joined into one booming chorus that filled the room.

Lexi Nadel, 11, had the role of Princess Aurora. An incoming sixth grader at Postlewaite Middle this year, she’s looking forward to checking out the school’s drama club. She’s done several plays with the Children’s Theatre in the two years she’s been involved with the group.

“I’m very passionate about it. It just makes me feel so happy. It’s something I want to do in the future,” she said. “I love it.”

Justin Truitt, 10, of Dover, has participated in five plays with the group. Acting and karate are his two hobbies.

“You get to be people that you’re not. I had a lisp in one play. In another play, I was an old, grumpy man. In this play, I’m a jester,” he said. “In another play, I was a guard.”

Micheala Spangler said she gave up soccer to spend more time on theater, “because this benefits me more.” And while she has a drama club at her school, she likes the Children’s Theatre experience better.

“We get to do more plays and there’s a bigger audience to watch us. I get bigger roles here and also better plays and we have more props,” she said.

The organization’s upcoming season so far includes “A Dickens Christmas Carol.” Auditions will be held at Reith Hall, 304 S. Governor’s Ave., on Sept. 11 and 12. Registration is at 6:30 p.m. and auditions begin at 7 p.m.

Jenna Clendaniel, 10, has been involved in the group for three years. She was playing a chamber maid in last week’s play and fanned herself with a silver tray as she waited for her scene in the historic, renovated church.

“Children’s Theatre is basically a family just with new people coming in,” she said.

Learning about the Schwartz Center’s closing was sad news.

“It was heart breaking because I was like, ‘Is the Children’s Theatre going to close?’”

She rattled off a list of ideas that went through her head at the time to counter the loss of the Schwartz, including holding plays at other venues, offering dinner shows and even making the smaller Reith Hall work.

“We’ll find something,” she said.

Schwartz Center closes

Like its stage, the Schwartz’s website is dark. Its Facebook page last shows a post from June 30: “Well, it’s here … The day we have to close our doors. Thank you for all your support over the years. Good luck Dover.”

The Schwartz board of directors announced June 8 that the center would close June 30. While the board operated the facility and scheduled programming and fundraisers, the three-story building is owned by Wesley College and Delaware State University.

Built in 1904, the theater operated until 1982 when it sat vacant for over a decade. A massive community campaign led by The Friends of the Capitol Theater and started in 1996 eventually reopened the theater in 2001 after raising $3.3 million to renovate and modernize the building. Funds included $1.3 million from the General Assembly and $1.2 million in grants from philanthropic groups, including the Longwood Foundation and Delaware Community Foundation.

Representatives from Wesley and Delaware State as well as city leaders have said they will pursue options for keeping the facility open, as an asset to downtown Dover and the arts in Delaware.

As the children’s theater works out its future performance location, Ms. Beetschen said she looks forward to hearing good news for the Schwartz Center.

“It’s very sad going by there to see it all dark,” she said. “I certainly hope something can be worked out so we can have it back again and not just for the children’s theater, but for anybody who loves the arts.”

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