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History of the Delaware Theatre Company
FROM FIREHOUSE TO RIVERFRONT: DTC celebrates 20 years on the banks of the Christina
If your image of the Christina Riverfront today contains people strolling up and down the Riverwalk, folks dining outdoors on the deck of a restaurant, or employees making there way to and from work, you wouldn't have recognized the place 20 years ago. Imagine the opposite of what you see today — abandoned lots, industrial decay, unsavory conditions — and Wilmington said, "let there be life!" A considerable metamorphosis would take place — twenty years later we see, it was no dream.
Delaware Theatre Company's riverside odyssey began with a little help from their friends across the parking lot at Mitchell Associates and Moeckel Carbonell Associates. Once said to be "pioneers," Louis B. Rosenberg, Principal at Mitchell, prefers to think of the Riverfront gang from the old days as "scouts."
In 1983, the group acquired the riverfront tract of land bounded by Orange Street to the east, Water Street to the north, and Thorn Street to the west, renamed Avenue of the Arts (although you can still read Thorn Street on the Amtrak bridge.) With the entire block of land to themselves, all that Mitchell and Moeckel Carbonell were missing was a bulkhead.
At this same time, what Delaware Theatre Company was missing was a home. Eric Schaeffer, DTC's Director of Production, who has been with the theatre since 1983, explains the many hardships of their former residence in the French Street Firehouse, where the company had been producing plays since its foundation in 1978. In this one small building the theatre's rehearsals, set construction, office work, and plays all took place. Set pieces were built in the basement shop and hoisted (by hand) through a trap door in the stage floor. The third floor rehearsal room and second floor dressing rooms were connected to the theatre by a narrow spiral staircase. The theatre's control booth (where lights and sound are run during a production) was built into the former hose-drying tower. Conditions were rough, but it served its purpose valiantly. A time came when the block on which the abandoned firehouse stood was to be sold, and DTC turned to the government for an answer.
The state struck a deal with Mitchell Associates and Moeckel Carbonell Associates — in exchange for the construction of their bulkhead they would sell the land to the state, who in turn would lease the land to DTC for one dollar a year. DTC was temporarily relocated to the Absolom Jones Community Center for the 1984-1985 season until their site, a former meat rendering plant, was destroyed, and reborn as a theatre. Finally, DTC would have everything all in one place and a home to call their own.
Theatres and rivers have been "good companions over the centuries," pointed out Cleveland Morris, founding Artistic Director of DTC, upon the theatre's relocation during the 1985-1986 season. "Four hundred years ago, when the English stage enjoyed its greatest renaissance, the first cluster of playhouses sprang up on the south bank of the Thames." London's Bankside district was equally home to prisons and brothels, which was perhaps an appropriate location for vagabond actors and their scandalous art of the theatre in puritanical Elizabethan England. But perhaps, the rougher part of town was an even more perfect match for plays and players since, as Morris points out, "The theatre is a fundamentally urban art form, because its concerns deal with people in interactions, with natives and foreigners, and all of the spiritual bonds that unite us to and isolate us from each other every day."
And at first, DTC was certainly isolated — Charlie Conway, the theatre's current Director of Education who has been with the company in various capacities since 1982, admits that DTC's new location was both "hard to get to and hard to find." He adds, "On French Street, DTC was the only building on the block, but because it was downtown, everyone knew where it was. The Riverfront area was unfamiliar to most patrons, and without any traffic lights on Martin Luther King Blvd., we were blocked in." In addition, Thorpe Moeckel, Managing Principal of Moeckel Carbonell, points out that an even greater challenge was "convincing people that we weren't crazy!" He says, "People like Cleveland Morris had the vision, and we [Mitchel Associates and Moeckel Carbonell] had the vision too of what this area could become. We had seen what other cities were doing with their waterfront areas, but it was hard to get others to see this vision in the longterm."
Yet somehow, they never gave up hope. Cleveland Morris avowed, "Here lies every wonderful opportunity to relish our own city's colorful past and participate in its even finer future…" DTC could serve as an anchor, a "draw" to get Wilmingtonians down to the Riverfront. With a theatre now holding nearly 400 people (more than the 180 capacity at firehouse), DTC was in a position to bring a six-year tradition of theatrical excellence to a larger audience on a larger scale.
Rosenberg, Moeckel, Conway and Schaeffer all agree that the biggest change that the Riverfront has seen these twenty odd years is that "there are people here now." Once thought of as Wilmington's "best kept secret," Delaware Theatre Company is a secret no more. Recognized for their 2004 production of Constant Star at the Philadelphia Theatre Alliance's Barrymore Awards last Fall, DTC received a record number of awards, 7 total, the most ever to be received by a single production (the previous record was 5) — proving that good things come to those who wait.
And just when all thought it couldn't get any better — in early July 2005, in fulfillment of Governor Minner's pledge (on the occasion of DTC's 25th anniversary season in 2003) to deed to the Delaware Theatre Company the land beneath its facility, the General Assembly approved legislation that allows the complete and unencumbered transfer of said property to DTC.
And how would some of the Riverfront's longest standing residents like to see it continue to grow? More parking!