How Local Leaders Revived Wilmington’s Arts Scene, Last but Not Least – The Grand Opera House

The grand rebirth of Wilmington’s historic opera house has given the city yet another venue for interesting and unique entertainment.

Read the full original article by Mike Bederka for Delaware Online.

Only now can the leadership team of The Grand Opera House joke about taking over operation of the historic DuPont Theatre in January 2015.

“With the worst over, we shake our heads and say, ‘What were we thinking?’” laughs Stephen Bailey, managing director of programming for The Grand. “Sure, we’ll just take over another theater. We’ll handle the added responsibility of running the oldest continuous Broadway series in America. Why not?”

Mark Fields, executive director for The Grand, echoes the thought. “It’s not exactly your first plan when you have one historic theater that needs a lot of care, effort and love to hold together that you want to get another one,” he says.

Initial worries soon faded, however, as they saw the potential—and higher purpose—of putting the two venues, which sit a couple blocks apart on Market Street, under one umbrella.

Rather than compete against each other, The Grand and the DuPont—now called The Playhouse at Rodney Square in a nod to its 100-year history as The Playhouse—could coordinate their programming. In the past, The Grand’s packed schedule often precluded booking acts that wanted to plug Wilmington into their tour. 

“With another venue, we double our chances of being able to make it happen,” Fields says. “Now we get artists who we might have had to pass on before.”

Second, while the DuPont Co. should be commended for running the heralded venue and attracting star talent for a century, it became increasingly clear the company shouldn’t be in the theater business, Bailey says.

“They built one of the strongest Broadway series in a market of this size, but the company changed directions over the last eight to 10 years due to outside market pressures,” he says. “They weren’t able to have the same level of commitment and passion that they once had, which is fairly common in the corporate world today.”

Seeing the possible shuttering of the theater further inspired The Grand to pursue a deal.

“We didn’t want the loss of the DuPont Theatre for anyone,” Bailey says. “What would it say about Wilmington and the larger community? It didn’t make sense to our business to have another venue potentially close.”

Negotiations between The Grand and DuPont took about eight months. “It was an intricate agreement,” Fields says. “You have two very different entities. One is an international multibillion-dollar company. The other is a small local nonprofit arts organization. In many ways, part of it was learning each other’s language.” 

Once the agreement was made, The Grand team had to move quickly to keep the houselights on. Much of the staff stayed on board, including the veteran box office manager. It was a vital component in transitioning the ownership, though not everything ran smoothly.

Having taken over midseason, The Grand scrambled to book acts for the rest of the year. Tickets prices stayed a little higher than usual for a while. And the two theaters worked from different websites, databases and ticketing systems all the way up to this fall. The rebranding caused some confusion, so people would occasionally show up at the wrong venue. 

Yet off nights soon faded into memory, and The Grand has begun to take advantage of the opportunities it first saw years ago. Each venue has maintained a healthy audience, with an overlap of only 20 percent. The Grand is now looking for ways to cross-pollinate by offering special ticket packages and shaking up the usual schedule. 

Comedian Lewis Black, for instance, has sold out The Grand each of the eight times he has performed there over the past 10 years. Bailey and Fields wanted to see what would happen if he performed at the Playhouse. The result: another sellout.

“The Grand Lewis Black fans followed him up the street,” Bailey says, “and the core audience of the DuPont was introduced to The Grand experience taking place at The Playhouse.”

“The Grand Experience” takes on special meaning for the two longtime leaders. They both have worked at the venue for more than a decade.

In particular, they point to the “show corps,” the 200 ushers who contribute more than 20,000 volunteer hours a year. 

“They’re emotionally committed to both of these spaces,” Fields says. “They love it when a performance does great and take it personally when one doesn’t sell as well.”

The show corps’ enthusiasm, local theater veterans in charge and top acts—and more of them—have helped the new Playhouse meet an early goal: stop the erosion of subscription sales. In fact, they have even added about 100 new subscribers.

Last season ended with a limited run of the smash “Jersey Boys,” which sold an impressive 8,000 tickets over eight performances. (The Playhouse seats 1,252.)

“That tells us that people still will pay to come see Broadway in Wilmington,” Fields says. “It’s very encouraging. There’s the potential to rebuild the audience.”

The benefit extends beyond The Playhouse and The Grand gaining from these changes, he says.

“When there’s something going on at The Playhouse, The Grand and our friends down the street at World Cafe Live at The Queen, Market Street is electric,” Fields says. “There’s this energy in the air that everyone feels. People are walking around everywhere, and the restaurants are full. We’re pleased and proud to be part of it and excited to see what the next iteration of downtown Wilmington will be.” 

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