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What's Up Magazine

The Faces of the Prince Theatre

Jan 07, 2014 04:04PM ● By Cate Reynolds
This is the first article in a series exploring the local performing and fine arts scene through the eyes of the individuals who make it tick. We are extremely fortunate on the Eastern Shore to be surrounded by so much creativity and talent from organizations like The Garfield Center for the Arts at the Prince Theatre, which we profile here. The articles in this series will give readers the opportunity to get to know the passionate individuals of our arts organizations in their element, behind the curtains, so to speak.

By Beth Rubin // Photography By Tony Lewis, Jr.

Providing entertainment to the community is nothing new for Chestertown. Aim the spotlight on the Prince Theatre. In a former life, the New Lyceum Movie House on High Street limped along for nearly a century under various owners. The first film was shown in 1909 in the same building as the town clock, and a ticket would set you back 5 cents. In 1928, to accommodate larger audiences drawn by the “talkies,” the theater expanded into an adjacent butcher shop with seating for 650. Kids got in for a quarter; adults paid 50 cents for a seat on the main floor or 30 cents for the gallery.

After a succession of owners, C.E. “Pete” Prince took over the business in 1957 and kept it going until his death in 1988. His wife carried it a few more years. Then Joyce Huber Smith of Chestertown bought and remodeled the theater in 1992. A year later, the house went dark after a showing of The Firm. With a theatrical flourish, the building was rescued by local business owners Ron and Susan Kerns who “restored and revitalized the handsome old sovereign.” In 2002, the firmly established Prince Theatre Foundation reopened the theater with a new lobby, stage, and orchestra pit.

Under a new banner—The Garfield Center for the Arts at the Prince Theatre—a series of renovations began in 2010 to “reclaim the original intent of the structure,” says Managing Director Kathryn Bursick. It hasn’t been a day at the beach. Ticket sales cover approximately 14 percent of operating costs, she says. Coming up with the other 86 percent while meeting the foundation’s artistic and education goals—and growing an audience—is not for sissies. As with other historical nonprofit theaters, financial success “depends heavily on individual donations, grants, and sponsorships,” Bursick says.

Despite the challenges—in this bucolic, picture-postcard hamlet on the Chester River, known for its beautifully restored 18th-century homes, maritime history, and population barely topping 5,000—the arts are flourishing. Are they ever!

With its nostalgic Broadway-style marquee, stunning architectural mix of yesteryear and today, the Prince Theatre is a looker. A glance at the events calendar, and you might think you’ve landed on the Great White Way. Musical entertainment. Plays. Lectures. Open mic. Film. Workshops. Classes. Playmakers, a summer theater camp for kids. Community outreach and enrichment, onsite and in partnership with local organizations and schools. This Prince is a studly royal with an apt tagline: See a Show! Start a Conversation!

Paid staff work closely with scores of devoted volunteers, many of whom spend as many hours immersed in Princely projects as they spend at their day jobs. Producing Artistic Director Lucia Foster has been on board since 2006. The Kent County resident is a former teacher at Kent County High School who currently teaches Acting I up the road at Washington College. Involved with theater and youth and community development for most of her adult life, she has been “onstage since early childhood.” She oozes enthusiasm along with gratitude to the community “for supporting a sustainable arts center in our town—a place where we may all feel welcome, engaged and inspired.”

Foster is proud of the “theater’s strides to establish itself as a community arts center accessible to the entire community—across economic, racial and age limitations.” Under her leadership, Playmakers summer programs and educational outreach efforts have thrived, and the Prince Theatre has become a leader in forging creative interaction, communication, and involvement within the diverse upper Eastern Shore community. “I want to continue to build on the strengths of what we’ve done. We’ve taken something—a physical place—and turned it into a center that benefits the larger community and facilitates the talents of those in our community.”

Technical Director Butch Clark worked with a local actors group for many years before signing on at the Prince. He is, literally, the man behind the curtain, responsible for running sound and lights and building most of the sets. With aplomb, he juggles his theater duties with working full-time as a mail carrier for the USPS in the Worton area and volunteering for other productions and public events in Kent County. In 2011, he was honored as the Chestertown Tea Party Grand Marshall. He made his stage debut at the 2011 Women Helping Women fundraiser.
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The technical process—building the sets, setting the lights, and such—begins about six weeks out, Clark says. “I read the script, knock heads with the director, and decide what to do.” It’s on his shoulders to determine “where the director wants the audience to focus. You set up sound or video, or whatever, depending on what the director wants to convey. I ask, ‘what do you want to sell the audience?’”

Because the theater is in use most of the time, there are ongoing time challenges. “Sometimes we have to put a set up or change it very quickly,” Clark says. Lately, he has been learning to master videos. At first, “I wondered how far the HDMI [high definition multimedia interface] would go. I had to go to VGA [video graphics array].” Whoa! He translates the techie talk for a technically challenged journalist. “The computer and the projector wouldn’t talk to each other.”

Clark wears many hats because, “We’re not just a theater venue. We have performers and entertainers, and open mic night the last Wednesday of the month. I set up mics and monitors so the performers can hear and see themselves. The place is packed. The performers have a following—and they’re coming from further and further away. I love to see the younger kids playing [music]. That really gets me going. Some are as young as 8 or 10.”

He recalls when there was no PA system and the floor was plywood. Clark brought in a stage, one of many theater platforms he’d accumulated from years of theater work. You learn as you do it, he says. “Someone can tell you something will work. But you have to experience it.” As a small organization, “you can’t spend a lot of money, so you do it one step at a time. I’m not great with tech things on a PC. But I can run lines. I can see things. And, I work with talented people who see colors, subtleties.

“When everyone gets together and you’re focused, you can almost read each other’s minds,” he says. During the final rehearsals and run-throughs, “Sometimes the actors are ahead. Sometimes, the techs. We have to end up at the same place to make it run right.”

One of the theater’s youngest actors is 13-year-old Will Cammerzell, who has participated for five years in Playmakers, the five-week summer camp program. He heard about it from his sister Helen, now 18 and a student at Duke University. Will’s favorite role was playing a humongous centipede in George and the Giant Peach. Some of his friends go to camp with him. Those who don’t are supportive and attend performances. “They think it’s cool,” he says.

Will’s mom, Tricia Cammerzell—director of development at the Kent School, where Will is in the 7th grade—served on the Garfield Center for the Arts board for a spell and stays involved. She says the youth program “gives the kids the confidence to speak with adults. And, it’s a safe place to try new things. People will celebrate you. I think overall it’s a vehicle to the spotlight. It says to the children, ‘I’m supposed to be doing this.’” She describes the theater as the “cultural center of the town. Something of value is happening for every taste.”

The idea of a theater family is nothing new. At the Prince Theatre, some have a marriage license to prove it. Take Francoise and Mark Sullivan. Francoise has her own website design company that provides custom website designs mostly to nonprofits and small businesses. She’s worked with the Prince for a decade, and submitted the winning logo design for the rebranding in 2011. She also revamped the website to reflect the “new identity and transformation of the theater,” and serves on the marketing committee. On any given day, you may find her updating the website, creating a Facebook graphic, designing a poster, ad, or program book—or brainstorming on marketing strategies.

Short Attention Span Theatre (an annual festival of 10-minute plays) is one of her favorite productions because, “I get to read lots of quirky plays to help me come up with a poster concept.” Her biggest design challenge is to “find some icon or imagery for each play and use that to create a montage that represents all of the offerings.”

She treasures being a part of the Garfield Center for the Arts, she says, because, “I get to be a part of the magic! Here is where friends and neighbors are transformed and you are transported to someplace else, at least for a little while. The people who volunteer their time on- and off-stage do it out of love, and you can feel that when you walk into a performance or talk to anyone involved in a production. It is inspiring to collaborate with creative people who are passionate about their work.”

Mark Sullivan, her other half, has been on the board for four years. As secretary since March 2010, he feels honored, he says, to “play a role in guiding the direction of this place that I love so much.” By day, he is a software engineer, working on projects for the University of Maryland, NASA, USDA, and several international organizations.

He is a co-founder—with Lucia Foster and Steve Arnold—of the Live PlayWrights Society (liveplaywrightssociety.org), which meets monthly for play writers, readers, observers, and critics. He is executive producer of the Short Attention Span Theatre (featuring 10-minute plays that are “just long enough”), and has directed and written several shows. Most recently, he directed The Book of Liz, which ran for two weekends in November.

“We can have as many as 50 people working as cast and crew on a SAST, he says. Folks from their teens to their ’60s, experienced actors and first-timers, teachers and students, builders and engineers, accountants and translators, and more. These are our friends, neighbors and co-workers who come together to create one unified production out of many, many moving parts. It's a marvelous, crazy and slightly miraculous thing to behold.

“The most satisfying thing is to have worked really hard with a team of people to create something that an audience enjoys. Theater is at its best when it is a truly and deeply collaborative effort,” Mark says. “When you’ve worked with your team for weeks and weeks, through auditions to rehearsals to tech week to that jittery feeling in your gut right before the lights go up on opening night, it’s remarkable. Magic. All of it.”