In the late 1920s, a loose group of Delawareans begins to meet in each other’s homes to read plays and perform for each other. Calling themselves “The Wilmington Drama League,” the members soon make a proposition: to share their fun and enthusiasm with a live audience in a real theater. After some hat-passing, they build a rickety stage at the old Lea Mills in Wilmington. They begin to rehearse their first play, the comedy Brewster’s Millions, which opens on December 13, 1933 (in true “the show must go on” fashion, two audience members are recruited to fill in for snow-bound actors). The Drama League was on its way!
By the late 1930s, after too many wobbly coat racks cause pileups and one fire escape is carried away by a train, it is clear the League needs a new home. Mortgage money is unavailable, bu that doesn’t stop them – they raise $60,000 and break ground on the building that remains the home of the Wilmington Drama League to this day.
Still, challenges continue for the League. A production of Journey’s End comes to a fitting closing night finale when the entire set collapses. And in the summer of 1945, a terrible storm during a production of Iolanthe led to the unfortunate nickname “The Drama Leak Theater.” (Thanks to a grant-funded roof replacement, that is no longer a problem.)
Throughout the years, the building has evolved to become an excellent house for theater. The lobby has been expanded, the stage has been overhauled, rehearsal areas have been created, and state-of-the-art lighting, sound, and projection equipment has been installed. Nearly all of these improvements have come about through the donations of generous grantors like the Longwood Foundation, the Delaware Division of the Arts, the Delaware Community Foundation, the Gannett Foundation, the Crystal Trust, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars donated by our patrons and volunteers.
And we still adhere to the DIY principles of those early years. Volunteers handle everything production-related, from building and painting our often elaborate sets to ushering and bartending to directing, acting, and teching our shows. Our huge collection of costumes and props, some of which date back to the nineteenth century, is an invaluable resource for the many performing arts groups and houses in the area.
We are able to focus on drama and theatre education through the Chrysalis Players, our children’s theatre wing, and Youth Acting Classes. We strive to be a beacon of the arts in our community by providing inexpensive (sometimes free!) theatre, by displaying the artwork of local artists and by providing a performing space to many arts and charitable organizations. In lieu of monetary compensation, our volunteers are fueled by their love of the arts, the joy of creation, and the pursuit of high-quality theatre.
And every production has a story – just ask the many actors, directors, volunteers, and patrons among you. Ask Aubrey Plaza, who discovered her love of theatre at the Drama League while appearing in shows and winning awards. Ask Tony Award winner Johnny Gallagher Jr., who first stepped onstage at the Drama League. Ask actor, writer, and director Keith Powell, who was an active actor and playwright here as a teenager. Or ask any of our volunteers, some of whom seek fortune and fame, others who just want a second home where they can act, work, and play.
The Wilmington Drama League has become a beacon of the arts in the area. Through it all, however, we’ve never strayed from the original goal of the original Drama Leaguers – we do what we love, and we work as a community to do it well.