Whether to Shock or Enchant: Bootless Stageworks Expands Wilmington’s Arts Offerings

This article was written by Julie Anne Cross. This was posted on behalf of inWilm.


For nine out of the last ten years, Bootless Stageworks has staged horror-themed musical theater productions, usually in the summer, such as Evil Dead, The Musical and The Texas Chainsaw Musical!, featuring the company’s signature “splatter zone,” a section of seating where tarps and ponchos protect guests from a thorough soaking of stage blood. And where other guests wear white shirts that will serve as a stained souvenir of their experience.


But don’t let the preponderance of singing, sweltering gore-fests fool you.


From “a galaxy far, far away” to human trafficking right here in this country, Bootless has tackled subject matter holding what is likely the broadest appeal of any theater company in Delaware, and is making its mark on the greater performing arts community by opening its doors wide to talented neighbors.


The Bootless origin story starts like just about every other arts nonprofit in our state: a group of talented friends was looking for a way to express themselves. These friends included Rosanne DellAversano and James W. Fuerst, the husband and wife team who are both co-founders and leaders of Bootless. At first known as Arden Club Theatre, after five years, Bootless gained its 501c3 in 2009…and immediately needed to seek a new venue.


During its early years, Bootless put on shows at the Church of Saints Andrew & Matthew, Reach Academy for Girls, Bellanca Air Service Hangar (replete with on-site firefighters, since the hangar was not equipped with sprinklers), empty storefronts at Riverfront Wilmington and OperaDelaware Studios.


After wandering the theatrical desert, Bootless signed a long-term lease with St. Stephen’s Church at 13th and Broom in 2014. Bootless has diligently renovated the church’s basement social hall into a 75-seat theater and flex space, and began offering five to six year-round performances in their own home.


Since then, the Bootless crew has invited hip hop, drag, comedy, open mic, and even other theater companies to share the same stage where Bootless puts on musicals, operettas, operas and stage plays.


Highlights from recent Bootless seasons INclude:


  • Body & Sold: True Stories of Human Trafficking Survivors. Taking the form of a documentary play, this 2017 Delaware premiere told the stories of eight teen survivors in five US cities and the stark realities of their victimization. Within 48 hours of being on the street, any of America’s 100,000 annual young runaways is likely to be approached by a man posing as a friend, offering food, shelter, and love, who will end up selling the young person for commercial sex. The play was part of the BODY & SOLD Project, a theater and community initiative to raise awareness about the epidemic of commercial sexual exploitation of our young people and develop strategies to combat it.


  • Not the Messiah. Bootless offered the regional premiere of this concert opera in 2013, and reprised it in 2018. Dubbed a “comedic oratorio,” this Monty Python musical requires five soloists, a full orchestra, a relatively large chorus and bagpipers to deliver its full effect. For the 2018 show, used as a fundraiser for Bootless, St. Stephen’s Church welcomed Bootless patrons into its upstairs pews, and demonstrated an admirable sense of humor by allowing songs such as “What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?” and “Not the Chosen One” to be sung from the altar.


  • You’ve Got Red on You. Bootless staged a horror musical parody of the film, Shaun of the Dead, in 2017. It was originally adapted by the creators of Bootless’ 2014 production, Musical of the Living Dead. Full of inside jokes for fans of the “Cornetto Trilogy” of films, this zombie story pushed the boundaries of Bootless’ splatter zone, much to the delight of audience members who didn’t score the sold-out in-zone tickets. (Splatter zone tickets cost more, not less, and are rarely still available at the door.) Originally adapted by Brad Younts and Marc Lewallen, additional material was added by Rosanne DellAversano, Shaun Yates and Bootless Stageworks, and the entire cast, the original composer and a new music collaborator have been working on edits for its next production run in July 2019.


Recent artistic guests have included Wilmington drag performer Miss Troy (possibly more widely known for her alter-ego, Aunt Mary Pat DiSabatino), a documentary presented by the Afrikan Connection and live comedy presented by Nova Scotia-born Belynda Cleare.


If generating income through refreshment sales seems like the goal of opening up their venue to entrepreneurial guest artists, you’d be underestimating Bootless’ support of performers.


DellAversano says, “Bootless firmly believes that choosing to be a working performing artist is one of the toughest career paths. It isn’t the standard nine-to-five job, and only in rare cases does it make one rich.” She adds, “The reward is usually the sheer joy of seeing a total stranger laugh, cry, contemplate or discover because of your interaction with them. During those ninety minutes or so of togetherness, there is nothing else but what is taking place on stage and being shared. It’s a profession that is uniquely intimate with millions. And, the experience provided by the artist has a real value.”


She describes the typical experience of a performing artist, which is often sharing their talents for free. The term “starving artist” is neither new nor, sadly, outdated.


Empathizing with the artists she engages, DellAversano says, “You wouldn’t ask a plumber to complete repairs for free. Why then is it perfectly fine to ask or assume an artist will work without pay? Food can’t be bought and bills can’t be paid with exposure.”


In a stroke of irony, Bootless’ founders, board and executive staff are volunteers, yet they see that their artists, including designers, musicians, playwrights and composers, get paid, and offer the same opportunity for guest artists.


DellAversano says, “Most of the time, we provide our space for free, so long as we can run concessions. Whether it be Brandon Jackson or Belynda Cleare with their comedy shows, Jea Street with his CD release party, Joe Belardo with his Open Mic Night, Miss Troy & Friends with Drag Me to Story Time, or the Afrikan Connection with the documentary film The Black Candle, Bootless does not charge a fee for the use of its venue. Plus, the artists/exhibitors keep their entire ticket sales.”


The drag community has found a supportive home with Bootless. Preceded by Death is a Drag, a Bootless original murder mystery drag show in 2012, a number of drag events have been staged at the Broom Street facility, with more in the future.


Bootless regularly presents works that are new to Delaware audiences. IN fact, the 2016-2017 season only featured a single “standard” work—Spring Awakening—and in 2010-2011, all the company’s productions were either originals or Delaware premieres.


Approximately thirty productions in Bootless’ ten-year history were regional or local premieres. That’s too many to list, but highlights include: Orange Is The New Musical (East Coast premiere, 2017), In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) (Delaware premiere, 2016), Terminator, The Second (East Coast premiere, 2014), Jerry Springer, The Opera (regional premiere, 2012), Star Wars, A New Musical Hope (regional premiere, 2013) and a few more summer gore-fests.


Lest one think their repertoire is all pop culture and sex, note that Bootless has also tackled historical subject matter, such as The Trial of Thomas Garrett, commissioned for A Day in Old New Castle in 2010.


DellAversano says that Bootless is in contract discussions to bring several more new works to Wilmington by 2020, including a new musical based on famous serial killers, in the style of Assassins, with many members from Bootless working on its plot lines and music.


With general admission ticket prices usually lingering in the $15-22 range, it’s clear Bootless also cares about its audience. Plus it’s ADA accessible and free parking is easy to find. It makes up for moderate ticket pricing, like every other nonprofit theater, with fundraising.


Be sure to support this scrappy theater company by attending one of the mainstage productions, an open mic night, a comedy night, a visiting theater company’s production or one of the two upcoming drag shows this spring. Our picks:


Spice Girls Drag Tribute (Miss Troy & Friends) on Thursday, May 16 at 7:30 pm.


Up next on the main stage is the INternational hit musical Disenchanted!, making its Delaware premiere from March 22 to April 6. It’s a hilariously twisted, adult-themed, Disney spoof-tacular princess musical. In New York, 700 women auditioned for a one-night-only workshop of the musical, which sold out and resulted in a standing ovation, and went on to 2014 and 2015 runs, studded with celebrity audience members.

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