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Arts Playlist: 'It's magnificent!' Remodeled Playhouse on Rodney Square reopens to rave reviews

Playhouse Wilmington Sign
Mark Fowser
Delaware Public Media
The Playhouse o Rodney Square in Wilmington

The curtain rises on a new season at The Playhouse on Rodney Square this weekend with performances there since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 108-year-old theatre has been dark for more than a year and a half.

But in this week’s Arts Playlist Delaware Public Media's Mark Fowser tells out of adversity comes opportunity, and the Playhouse returns with a new look after getting some needed improvements and renovations.

Delaware Public Media contributor Mark Fowser reports on the reopening of the renovated Playhouse on Rodney Square

The date was March 12th, 2020.

Hours before a scheduled performance, the Playhouse on Rodney Square received word that it would have to cancel its event due to COVID-19 mandated closures announced by Governor John Carney.

The play to be performed: "The Play That Goes Wrong."

"Our first act in the pandemic was to tell a whole bunch of people not to come to a play, which was a pretty painful thing to do," Executive Director of The Grand Mark Fields said.

Music, laughs, drama and dance were silenced at The Playhouse, The Grand Opera House and The Baby Grand.

The theatre was looking kind of tired. It was very well-used and well-worn. We knew it needed work, but we just didn't have the money to do it.
The Grand executive director Mark Fields

It wouldn't be long before those sounds were replaced by hammers and power tools.

According to Fields, the need to make improvements at The Playhouse had been recognized for some time. It had not undergone a significant upgrade since the early 1990s.

"The theatre was looking kind of tired. It was very well-used and well-worn. We knew it needed work, but we just didn't have the money to do it," Fields said.

However, long-time supporters of the arts in Delaware Tatiana and Gerret Copeland came forward to provide that support. That support made it possible to pursue what Fields called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to renovate and redesign portions of the theatre.

A significant renovation involves a feature patrons will rarely see: a larger door to the loading dock at the back of the stage.

"This door is actually very important for the simple fact that we actually had to turn down some productions because their set pieces were just way too large to fit through the original loading door," Playhouse Operations Director Julia Dougherty said. "By us having the new loading dock and giving us more height and width, we should be able to accept more productions with some larger set pieces that we couldn't do before."

Playhouse center stage.JPG
Mark Fowser
Delaware Public Media
The large door to the loading dock at the back of the stage will allow The Playhouse to book shows with larger set pieces

Replacing the seats reduced the capacity slightly, but that was by design. The new seats are wider, while also maintaining the historic look of the originals. New paint, new draperies and lighting also give The Playhouse a fresh look.

"The overall motif in the whole room is gold and cream and dark red. The colors are vibrant, the designs are vibrant and more than anything it's very comfortable," Fields said.

An expanded bar area with white marble counters -made with marble from other Dupont buildings - offers a comfortable place for guests to spread out and relax before the show or during intermission.

playhouse renovations
Matt Urban
NuPoint Marketing
Renovations to The Playhouse on Rodney Square include new carpeting and drapery, wider seats and a fresh paint jon

"Gerret and I are pleased to have provided the gift for The Grand to refresh and brighten The Playhouse during this period of extended closure," Tatiana Copeland said. "This gift not only benefits The Grand, but also the audiences that enjoy performance there. We invite the community to come join us at the newly restored and beautiful Playhouse when it reopens."

The whole experience of visiting The Playhouse has also been enhanced with upgrades to its surroundings at the Dupont Building, undertaken by the Buccini / Pollin Group. New corridor lighting and signage make it easier for visitors to find the theatre. Just a few steps away is Le Cavalier at The Green Room and the food hall, as well as apartments. The lobbies at Chemours and M & T Bank have also been renovated.

“The Grand’s renovation of the historic Playhouse on Rodney Square coincides with BPG’s ongoing renovation of the Dupont Building,” BPG Co-President Chris Buccini said. “It is another visual representation of our partnership with The Grand and both organizations’ commitment to Wilmington’s ongoing renaissance."

It's magnificent. It's really beautiful. I hope everybody will take the time to come and see it.
Longtime Playhouse usher Othell Heaney

With the reopening, educational outreach can also resume. The Grand's Stage of Discovery Series welcomes groups of younger students for performances that are often related to what they're learning in school.

According to The Grand's Managing Director Pam Manocchio, they tried their best to maintain a connection during the pandemic, including times when students were learning remotely.

"This was another way to supplement the classroom learning with pre-recorded performances that they were able to watch. But, it's not the same. It's not the same as sitting in a theatre," Manocchio said. "We're just thrilled to bring them back into a live setting here."

Live shows for school groups will resume in January 2022.

Perhaps they will meet Othell Heaney.

A longtime usher, Heaney is now the coordinator of about 200 volunteers who work events. Early in the pandemic, she took it upon herself to call each volunteer to see how they were doing.

Othell Heaney is approaching 90 years old. She plans to be in the house working several shows this weekend, including at the Playhouse.

"It's magnificent. It's really beautiful," Heaney said. "I hope everybody will take the time to come and see it."

Like many venues across the country, proof of a COVID-19 vaccination will be required of audience members, or proof of a negative test no more than 72 hours before the event if one is not vaccinated for a medical or religious exception.

Sara Bareilles'"Waitress," "Summer" featuring the music of Donna Summer, the 25th anniversary tour of "Riverdance" and "Fiddler on the Roof" will be presented during the 2021-22 season. For more information, call 302-652-5577.

Delaware Public Media' s arts coverage is made possible, in part, by support from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency dedicated to nurturing and supporting the arts in Delaware, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.

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