Broadway in a Beach Chair

by Dave on August 6, 2010

by Michael Short

Think of it as Broadway in a beach chair.

For three years, the Freeman Stage at Bayside has been bringing entertainment to Sussex County. Ranging from Broadway shows to children’s circuses, the entertainment center is a place to kick back and enjoy a show under the stars.

The Joshua M. Freeman Foundation was created after the death of Joshua M. Freeman in 2006. The Foundation is devoted to keeping his passions alive and one of those passions was the arts. Ultimately, the Freeman Foundation hopes to develop a year-round arts center at the site of the current Freeman Stage in the Bayside Complex on Route 54.

But for now, it’s a summer only offering with the emphasis on casual and classic. Casual because the stage sits in front of an open grassy area and people are invited to bring blankets, picnic baskets and beach chairs to take in the entertainment.
It’s a decidely relaxed atmosphere, although people are asked to leave both their alcohol and their pets at home. It’s classic because people may hear the Delaware Symphony, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company or the First State Ballet.

Almost all performances are free and some 15,000 people attended last summer’s events. This year, an estimated 18,000 are expected.

“We want to bring the arts to the people . . . It’s really about giving back and opening doors.”

“It’s a big city experience in a small town,” continued Marketing Manager Doug Phillips. “Bring your blanket and your chair and prepare to be wowed.”

But don’t get the idea that this is all highbrow. You’re just as likely to see hip-hop dance, the Zany Umbrella Circus, or the Dirty Sock Funtime Band.

Phillips said the offerings are meant to offer a bit of something for every taste, ranging from kid’s shows to opera. But he cautions that people shouldn’t be put off by more sophisticated offerings they may be unaccustomed to. “It’s kind of a soft greeting,” he promised. “Come with an open mind and just enjoy yourself.”

Phillips refers to the performances as “casually sophisticated.”

A better sound system is among several improvements to greet visitors this season. On Thursday, Aug. 5, visitors can see Ted Keegan, best known as the star of the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. On August 6 and 7, the stage shifts gears to offer the tap dancing of Rhythmic Circus. Starting August 11, a tribute week will begin with Face to Face, a tribute to Billy Joel and Elton John.
One of the missions of the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation is to bring the arts to people and to fill what may be a void in this region.

With tight budgets and a sluggish economy, these can be difficult times for the arts and many schools have been forced to cut the number of art classes being offered to students. But Phillips said a love of the arts is something that almost everyone shares, whether it’s simply turning on the radio to hear hip-hop or enjoying a commercial jingle. “It’s something everybody has in common.”

The Freeman Stage tries to bring entertainment and arts to groups Phillips calls “underserved.” For example, Boys and Girls Clubs and 2,000 student of the Indian River School District were invited to see the Zany Umbrella Circus in May. Phillips still remembers the smiles on the student’s faces.
Attendance is steadily rising, but Phillips and others still hope for more. “People ten minutes away still might not know that it’s here.”

Eventually, the plan is to build a year-round entertainment center at the site next to the current open air stage. That is still being studied and no plans or timetables for construction have been finalized, according to Phillips. “That is an ongoing conversation.”

“We’re here for the long haul,” he said.

All performances are held at the Bayside Complex on Route 54, approximately four miles west of Fenwick Island. No smoking is allowed and refreshments are available during the performances.

The Freeman Stage is a non-profit organization which depends upon both donations and volunteers. For more information on donating, volunteering, show schedules or to check on cancellations due to weather, go to www.freemanstage.org, call 302-436-3015 or become a fan on facebook.com/freemanstage.

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