Written by Ryan Cormier
What did working at Wilmington Drama League deliver for teenage actors Aubrey Plaza and John Gallagher Jr. long before they became Delaware's hottest Hollywood exports?
The long-running community theater, which is home to actors and actresses of all ages, gave each their first shot on stage at the age of 12, showed that acting was a career possibility and left each with a stream of positive childhood memories.
Oh, and it offered one more thing: it's where the Wilmington natives found each other.
"I was probably 13 or 14 and he was my first boyfriend," Plaza, 33, tells The News Journal. "I'm very lucky to be able to say that."
Just think, Delaware came so close to having itself the ultimate First State power couple.
Gallagher, who is only nine days older than Plaza, says the actress was his first girlfriend as well.
"We've always stayed close and kept in touch," says Gallagher, who attended Plaza's New York premiere for "Ingrid Goes West" last month with fellow WDL alumni Joni Gallagher and Dan Murphy. "We had this mini reunion, giving us a taste of what's going to be happening this weekend."
Nearly two decades after Plaza and Gallagher dated, they will be together again at WDL on Saturday, joined by a cavalcade of WDL alumni for a star-studded Homecoming Block Party that's open to all.
The party will be WDL's first major fundraiser since 2012's screening of Plaza's "Safety Not Guaranteed," which was attended by the actress, raising about $30,000 for the non-profit theater group.
After the screening, Plaza and Kathy Buterbaugh, the longtime head of WDL, began brainstorming ideas for a follow-up fundraiser at the theater, eventually deciding on this weekend's bash.
This time, the celebration's focus is the theater company's 85th anniversary.
The outdoor, family-friendly event will kick off at 3 p.m. and will include musical performances by John Gallagher Jr., Wilmington piano-based rockers Joe Trainor Trio, the Webb-led Wilmington Americana act Apache Trails and longtime Delaware folk duo John and June Gallagher, parents of John Jr. and Joni.
Performances will be held on an outdoor stage on Shipley Street instead of the indoor 250-person stage where Plaza, Gallagher and so many others got their start.
There will be food and beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) sold on site and children's activities include a bounce house, inflatable sumo wrestling, games and face painting.
Tickets are $25 at wilmingtondramaleague.org. For $75, you can buy a "backstage pass," which includes an after-party with the alumni, access to the event lounge, celebrity photo opportunities, along with food and a drink ticket.
Plaza says she first visited the 250-seat WDL two decades ago to see her cousin perform in "The Crucible" and was immediately blown away by the art of live theater.
"I couldn't believe it and thought, 'Wow, this is something I could do, too,'" says Plaza, whose first show was as a member of the chorus in "Hansel and Gretel." "Wilmington Drama League really changed my life. It opened my eyes to all the possibilities.
"It was invaluable for me to experience productions with adults, who were doing it because they were passionate about it. No one was making money. There was a real artistic drive that really inspired me to do what I do today. People like Kathy Buterbaugh really changed my life."
Plaza went on to perform at WDL all throughout her years at Ursuline Academy, focusing more on student-run one-act plays before leaving for New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
Plaza and others, such as "Ghostbusters" villain Neil Casey, who now co-stars in Fox's "Making History," and Keith Powell, Toofer on "30 Rock," would also throw their creativity into making short films. Sometimes Buterbaugh would also make an appearance in the movies, like when she plays Plaza's mother in a trailer for the faux film "Teen Hag," which is still available on YouTube.
To be able to explore in a world where creativity is king made WDL an important foundation for a steady stream of actors and actresses from the late '90s, many of whom still work in the field.
In addition to Plaza, who currently stars in the film "Ingrid Goes West" and the FX series "Legion," and Gallagher, the Tony Award-winner who co-stars in next year's big budget "Underwater" action-adventure film, there were plenty of other talents ended up at WDL around the same time.
Also attending the block party: Rory Donovan, who co-starred in Broadway's "Finding Neverland" and Carly Ciarrocchi ("The Sunny Side Up Show," "Sprout House"), along with Joni Gallagher, Meg Harkins, Adrienne Holliday Meade, Dan Murphy, Jeremy O'Keefe, Kate Stark, Francesa Selvaggio Vavala, Adam Wahlberg and Jason Webb.
Plaza can only shake her head at the sheer talent level of her WDL class, which also includes actor/writer Seth Kirschner, with whom she recently co-wrote and produced a pilot for CBS.
"It's really rare to have that many people come from the same place -- and an obscure location like Wilmington, Delaware. Who knew we would all be friends and still professionally acting and working in the business?" Plaza says. "When people meet us in LA, they stop and go, 'What was in the water?' I tell them, 'I don't know. It must have been the chemicals from the DuPont plant that infected all of us.'
"But I really attribute our success to the way that we were encouraged by Wilmington Drama League and the people who work there like Kathy, who let us take the reigns at a young age and instilled confidence in us. That doesn't happen for a lot of young people. So this a celebration of that. For me, that's what this weekend is all about."
Actor and Wilmington native John Gallagher Jr. in a scene from last year's "10 Cloverfield Lane." He returns to town for a WDL benefit later this month. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)
Gallagher's experience at WDL is not dissimilar. At the age of 12, his first play was an adaptation of "Frankenstein." In the show, Gallagher played William Frankenstein and had an intense death scene at the hands of Frankenstein's creation. In fact, it may have been a little too intense.
"One night, someone left the theater because they were really freaked out by seeing a young boy's demise on stage," says Gallagher, whose mother and sisters had acted in WDL shows before he joined.
His favorite WDL memories include "lock-in" nights with the teens working at the Lea Boulevard theater and staying overnight for a slumber party. Gallagher, Plaza, Casey, Kirschner and more tried to stay up all night.
"And, of course, everyone probably fell asleep in the seats of the theater," Gallagher remembers. "The community and the friends I made there is the really big thing. It was about everyone being treated equally. There was a lot of love and respect there even though we were younger."
Like Plaza, Gallagher's eyes were probably spinning when he took in a theater production for the first time.
"It was really magical. I would go there at an early age and be totally mesmerized. I remember being super excited about getting up on stage," says Gallagher, who was a shy teen and eventually overcame stagefright. "I was drawn to the spotlight, but I was also totally allergic to it."
For her part, Plaza is overjoyed at being able to use her celebrity to bring attention to the Wilmington Drama League and help raise funds at a time when the theater saw a 25 percent cut in state funding.
"These are the organizations that change young peoples' lives, giving them opportunities that they would never have," says Plaza, who stars in next year's comedy film "An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn." "For me, this is what makes everything I do worth it in the end."