All the beach is a stage in Coastal Sussex.
When Ches Warrener moved to the beach in 1984, he volunteered to work on the Christmas set for the Baystar Dinner Theater, which at that time staged productions at the old Seahorse Restaurant in Rehoboth Beach.
“There was such a shortage of men trying out for plays,” Warrener recalls. “They said, ‘Sing “Jingle Bells,”’ and I got a part.”
Today Warrener is chairman of the board of Rehoboth Beach Theatre of the Arts, which opened in 2008 on Baltimore Avenue. Oh, the changes he has seen.
Ken Skrzesz, who with Doug Yetter founded Clear Space Productions in 2004, has also witnessed the growth. “The community is culturally sophisticated, so it makes sense that local artists are stepping forward to expand their offerings,” he says.
Indeed, Sussex now has theater choices that rival those in some urban areas.
Clear Space Productions
Though the Delaware beaches are far from Broadway, the hustle and bustle of New York City started to zap Yetter and Skrzesz’s creative energies. Skrzesz had long been involved in dance companies, including the Ojczyzna Folk Ensemble, Kinetics Dance Theatre, Surge Dance Company and Luna Dance Company. Yetter is a pianist, director, conductor, arranger, orchestrator and composer.
They found respite while vacationing in Rehoboth Beach—so much so, that they decided to see if the community would support their vision. Six years after staring Clear Space, the answer is yes. The year-round group, which has a full- and part-time staff of 13, last year drew about 21,000 audience members.
Clear Space stages eight to 10 productions a year, each of which typically has 13 performances. The group has performed at the Freeman Stage at Bayside and the Schwartz Center for the Arts in Dover, but this year it performed mostly at the theater in the new Cape Henlopen High School.
Though Clear Space would like to continue using the high school theater, it’s exploring other possibilities so that it can offer season tickets in advance.
“We’re on the fast track for our own facility,” Skrzesz says. Clear Space also offers acting classes for the general public and for students.
Delaware Comedy Theatre
When it comes to creative, on-the-edge-of-your-seat entertainment, nothing can compare to improv, in which participants must create dialogue, actions and characters on the fly based on prompts. “It’s fearless humor,” says David Warick, who with his wife, Amy, founded the Delaware Comedy Theatre in 2005. “We don’t play it safe.”
Because the audience generates the show’s direction, every show is different. “Come ready to have fun and bring wacky suggestions,” Warick says.
“We’re skillful at working with all types of audiences who say who, what, when, where, how and why. We fill in the rest.”
The Waricks met while working at The Second City in Los Angeles. As a team, they wrote for the shows “Lilo and Stitch” and “The Weekenders.” They moved to Rehoboth in 2004, seeking a break from the frantic freelance scene in LA.
The company, which ranges from 10 to 15 people depending on the season, regularly performed at Wahoo on Coastal Highway in Rehoboth until that operation closed. DCT also performs at the Milton Theatre, local libraries and Fish On in the Villages of Five Points. Warick recommends visiting the website to see the most up-to-date listings, especially in fall, when the DCT is especially busy.
The group performs all year long. “We’re as much for the locals as we are for the tourists,” Warick says.
The Freeman Stage at Bayside
The open-air theater in the Bayside development about four miles from Fenwick Island debuted in 2008. Audience members bring a chair or blanket and park themselves in front of the stage.
“It’s very bohemian,” says Patti Grimes, vice president of outreach and programming. “They can bring their own food, or buy something at the café, which also sells beer and wine.”
The season runs through Labor Day, but there are two additional fall events: “100 Years of Broadway III” on September 18 and the annual fall festival on October 9. Most performances are on Friday nights at 7 p.m., with a children’s show every Saturday at 10 a.m.
Diverse offerings include tribute shows—Billy Joel, Elton John and Michael Jackson—dance performances and musicals. You need not be a resident to enjoy the show.
“We present the arts for everyone,” Grimes says. “People come and sit beside primary residents or second homeowners. Everyone is welcome.”
The theater is part of the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation, which seeks to create an arts center. Planners are using the theater to discover what audiences want.
“As a public charity, it’s important for us to involve and engage the community,” Grime says. “It takes the community to keep the lights on.”
In the 1920s, area residents flocked to the Milton Theatre to watch silent movies. With the advent of the talkies and color film in the 1930s, the theater went Art Deco. The movie house really was hopping in the 1940s and 1950s.
“It was the social focal point of the town,” says Ellen Passman, president of the board of the historic theater.
But in March 1962, the famous Ash Wednesday Storm swept through the coastal area and flooded the theater.
“It was pretty much abandoned,” Passman says—until 1999, when residents started a grassroots effort to restore the building.
It hasn’t been easy. At the first Christmas show in 2002, audience members received blankets because the heat was not yet working. But the 230-seat theater is once again a social hotspot. Along with movies, it offers concerts, plays, film series and national acts all year long.
“Our focus is to provide programming that serves the cultural needs of our community,” Passman says.
Rehoboth Beach Children’s Theatre
While touring Delaware libraries with their two-actor children’s theater group, Family Stages, Elise and Steve Seyfried fell in love with coastal towns.
“We found out that there was this wonderful beach in Delaware,” says Steve Seyfried, who is based full-time in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. They liked it so much that they decided to launch Rehoboth Beach Children’s Theatre, which runs from late June to around Labor Day.
Both companies are professional, Seyfried says. Adult actors perform for children, and they’re constantly on the move. “Everything we do is designed for touring,” he says.
This summer, the group performed four different shows. The plays took place on Wednesday nights at the Bay Center in Dewey Beach, and on most Thursday nights at Rehoboth Theatre of the Arts in downtown Rehoboth Beach. They’ve also held performances at the Holiday Inn Express in Bethany Beach, in Kent County and Sussex County libraries, and at Sea Colony.
The company also offers a summer film and TV camp for kids, which has grown in popularity. As for the plays, they’re attracting a second generation.
“We now have parents who saw our shows when they were young,” Seyfried says. “They enjoyed them so much, they’re bringing their kids.”
Rehoboth Theatre of the Arts
After Epworth United Methodist Church left Baltimore Avenue for new digs on Holland Glade Road, Rehoboth was left with a vacant structure that artists were ready and willing to occupy. Re-christened Celebration Mall, the venue now includes Rehoboth Beach Theatre of the Arts and working artists’ studios and galleries.
“During intermission, the audience can walk through the studios and talk to the artists,” says Ches Warrener, chairman of the board for the Rehoboth Theatre of the Arts.
The theater, which opened in 2008, seats about 300 in a traditional theater setup but the seating is flexible to accommodate cocktail tables for more of a café feel. Shows, which are offered year-round, cover the gamut, from tributes to Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland and Buddy Holly to one-act play festivals.
“We’re planning next year, and we’re going to do a lot of different shows—mix it up,” Warrener promises.
After all, there’s no business like show business.