Clear Space should look at Grove Park location

March 4, 2021

This is Edward Sisson, a member of the long-resident Winslow family (vacationing here since 1929, owning since 1936), and also a 10-years’ experienced producer of live performance (Jan. 1978 through Dec. 1987) based in San Francisco and on tour to Europe and across the U.S., including the Kennedy Center Opera House and other large venues, as well as many small 99-seat theaters.  In my subsequent career as a Washington lawyer, 1991-2006, I had pro bono clients including Source Theatre Co. on 14th St., when it went belly-up in 2002, coping with creditors and smoothing the transition to ownership by CulturalDC, a city-government-linked, but legally independent nonprofit.

I have followed with interest and hope the efforts of Clear Space to maintain its existence in Rehoboth, and thus maintain the existence of live performance in Rehoboth.  I have not had any contact with anyone at Clear Space, nor with any opponents of Clear Space, in any of the ongoing city-permission efforts; I have merely followed the issue in the pages of the Cape Gazette.

I have, however - as an experienced practical theatre producer - always had concerns about the parking situation at the proposed new location.  This is why, a couple of years ago, I suggested to Clear Space, and to the Rehoboth Art League, and to the Rehoboth Historical Society, the idea of building an interdisciplinary arts center-theater plus visual arts - in Grove Park.  My model was the interdisciplinary arts center in San Francisco, The Intersection, of which I was the theater program director in 1980 and 1981, which had live theater, film, poetry readings, painting, sculpture, and lectures.  No one even responded.  

I see now in the Cape Gazette story that, as to parking, “there are no off-street parking requirements. ... The plan is to direct patrons to use alternative means of transportation.” I don’t think this is actually going to work.  

The theatre experience is not just going from home to the theatre and then going back home.  Patrons will want either to have dinner beforehand, and then walk to the theatre from the restaurant, or else, after the show, want to walk over to a nearby bar or cafe and continue their social evening.  Clear Space’s current location is excellent for this, just what a theatre producer wants - downtown, surrounded by shops and restaurants and bars.  

The new location is too far away from these amenities for an easy walk; people will want to drive between restaurant and theatre, or theatre and bar/cafe.  

Also, this means that people will be arriving or departing at different times, which means that a specially scheduled bus will not answer the needs of the audience.  Waiting for public bus transportation, and having to crowd into public transport, mars the pleasant experience.  

Thus I anticipate a “parking load” on the nearby streets, which cannot easily be accommodated - producing an annoying experience for the theatre patrons, as well as to the neighborhood.  

A second issue I wish to mention arises from my pro bono legal experience with the failed Source Theatre in Washington.  Nonprofit theater corporations do sometimes fail - as Source did.  I recognize that Executive Director Paulson said that Clear Space intends to go on “providing live theatre at the beach for decades to come,” but intentions alone do not ensure performance or achievement. 

When a theater company fails, the city then has on its hands a theatre building that is a very different creature than just the usual failed shop.  A failed shop is basically a flat open-floor rectangle that can easily be set up for another shop or a restaurant.  

But a theatre, with raked seating built in especially, can only be a theatre.  As regards Source Theatre in Washington, its new owner, CulturalDC, was very fortunate to find a new producing group, Constellation, that is very talented - led by Allison Arkell Stockman.  I saw several of their productions and each was excellent.  Audiences came.  

But people like Ms. Stockman don’t grow on trees - they are rare.  And Rehoboth is not a major city of the kind that attracts such people - their work cannot get the publicity that builds their personal reputations.  Thus the city should consider what situation it will be in if Clear Space fails financially and no one can be found to come and put on performances that are sufficiently audience-attracting so as to re-open the doors.  Milton has had a theatre in town center, on Union Street, that for years was basically empty, making a dead spot in the town.  Performances have revived there, but the experience of the Milton Theatre is a good model for how Rehoboth will have to cope if Clear Space shuts down.  

Parking and financial problems may be related.  When people are deciding what to do of an evening, the convenience of doing an option is a factor in deciding whether to choose it, or choose another.  If parking at the theatre is a hassle, on top of the earlier hassle of finding parking for the restaurant for the pre-show dinner, some potential patrons will skip the theater part, and do something easier instead after dinner. That is not a problem in the current location, but will be in the new one.  Thus audience size may decline.  

The reason I proposed a new purpose-built multi-arts center at Grove Park was, first, parking: there is room for it, indeed, a parking structure could be built.  Second, cars coming in from outside would go no farther into Rehoboth than the traffic circle, and then be able to park.  Third, the theatre could have what Clear Space really wants: a “fly tower” that allows sets to be “flown” up into the tower, and new sets “flown” down, making for a much more exciting kind of experience.  Fourth, the art league could have all its operations there, thus putting performing arts together with visual arts.  Fifth, the art league would no longer be asking potential patrons to wend their way into Henlopen Acres which, beautiful as it is, is a terrible location for an arts center that serves the people here.  Sixth - and this is key - it appears to me that Grove Park is very little-used.  Seventh - this one is new since my original idea - the new boat-landing means that excursions can be organized that have a pleasant canal water cruise followed by a live performance, concluded by another pleasant evening water cruise.  

Grove Park will, of course, have vigorous defenders, making a battle royal over permits etc. that would dwarf the current Clear Space dispute.  But I think it is an idea that city citizens, and officials, should start to mull over.  There are no such multi-disciplinary arts centers in all of Delaware, outside of a couple in the Wilmington area.  Building one here would enrich the cultural life of all of Southern Delaware - and it would be Rehoboth’s own.

Edward Sisson
Rehoboth Beach
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