Freeman Stage staff and volunteers take it all in hand
From waiting for an artist’s first bus to arrive around 6 a.m., to precisely placing the very first chair for the evening’s show, to security-wanding each patron as they arrive, to serving thousands of beverages, to removing hundreds of bags of trash and recyclables, to watching the last of the artist’s busses leave after 1 a.m., the Freeman Stage blue- and yellow-shirted workers make each event appear to go like clockwork.
“They don’t have the most glamorous of jobs, but they have an enormous sense of accomplishment,” said Michelle Freeman, chairman and president of the Freeman Stage. “Their dedication to our mission” — partnering to present memorable performances and provide inspired arts education for all — “humbles me. I tell them, they may not get to like their work every day, but they get to love it every day.”
Dave Kittell is the facilities and asset manager. For four years, he worked as a seasonal team member at the Stage while teaching English as a second language at Delaware Technical Community College and at Frederick Douglass Elementary in Seaford. This is his second year as a full-time employee.
“I knew from the start I loved working here,” said Kittell. “The strong mission for the arts is incredible. Especially, I love seeing kids enjoying professional performances, sometimes for the first time.”
“During the season, I have four assistants and several volunteers to assist with the physical property and operations of the Stage. We are basically responsible for set-up, break-down and fixing everything in between. Whether it’s continuously restocking the beverage stations, or attending to a dysfunctional toilet, we get the calls on our radios and we respond immediately.”
The OAR concert on Aug. 9 was sold out, with 2,750 patrons — one of the largest of the season. That was the day Kittell tripped on a cord and fell off the stage, badly spraining his ankle. The next morning, he went to the emergency room, was given a boot to wear and instructions to not walk on it for a week or so. That week included the five-hour Voodoo Threauxdown extravaganza featuring Trombone Shorty.
“Adrenalin kept me going the first night, but then I was forced to direct people what to do from sitting on a chair with my foot up. Just sitting was the most exhausting thing I’ve had to do!” Kittell said.
“I wouldn’t trade my job for anything,” he added. “The best part is when I steal a few minutes to stand just in front of the stage and look backwards at the audience. To see 2,000 people laughing, singing, cheering, and to know our team helped make people happy, it’s a pretty cool thing.”
Molly Williams has been the manager of sales and patron experience for five years. Her responsibilities include food and beverage services, the box office, satisfaction and, most visibly, approximately 300 volunteers.
“Our volunteers are essential,” she said. “They bring their smiles to each performance and keep their smiles when, at the end of the show, they thank people for coming while offering them the opportunity to toss their trash.”
The venue has a maximum audience capacity of about 2,800 when chairs are provided and standing room is also allowed. The capacity for BYOC (bring your own chair) is 1,550. Depending on the type of performance and the numbers of tickets purchased, there can be from 40 to 90 volunteers at any one show. Each volunteer has to commit to working a minimum of 14 performances during the season. Williams uses an automated spreadsheet with expected numbers of patrons and volunteers to plan ahead.
The volunteers start arriving about two hours before show time. Williams huddles with the volunteer captains to make assignments and provide information about the specifics of any particular performance. Generally, volunteers are assigned to three areas of responsibility: parking, the gate area and the greens.
On a recent evening, the First State Ballet Theatre came to the Stage.
“Based on booked seats and previous experience, we expect 750 patrons tonight,” Williams told the captains. “There will be two 45-minute sets and a 10-minute intermission. Re-entry is allowed tonight, so we must be ready to stamp patrons.
“There will be lots of excited little girls in tutus, and there will be two pre-show lessons and a post-show meet-and-greet. The pre-shows will be tiara-making and instruction for different ballet positions. After the show, we have to have the steps ready for children to go up on stage to have their photos taken with the dancers. Tonight, there will be a snowball vendor and free face-painting. Our security team is on-site and the Roxana fire department as well.”
And, with that, everyone gets moving into what has become a familiar routine.
The Café at the Freeman Stage is the same physical size as when the venue opened 11 years ago. As the audience has doubled, so has the amount of food and beverages required. To accommodate the increase, food trucks are now part of the scene in Arts Alley, and that has allowed the Café to reduce the variety of choices and serve patrons faster.
“Hot dogs are the No. 1 food item sold,” said Williams. “Adeilia Price, our supervisor, and her team work non-stop, especially during intermissions. They work closely with Dave’s people to keep stocked with enough beverages so there are no interruptions.”
Occasionally, Williams is stopped in her tracks by an on-stage moment.
“This season, it was when the Piano Guys played the ‘Fight Song’ and all of a sudden bagpipers joined them on stage. The energy was electric. The whole audience rose out of their chairs as one. I was so moved I got goosebumps!”
Jason Bruffy is the chief operating officer. His work with the artists starts long before their performance date in Selbyville.
“Line by line, word by word,” he reviews their contracts to make sure there is a precise fit and understanding between the artist’s requirements and the venue’s capability. Sometimes the contract includes a “trick” item to ensure that it has been thoroughly read.
“I had someone ask me for a poem, buried inside their rider,” said Bruffy. “So I sent them a haiku. Another asked for a Tesla,” which Freeman did not provide. But it meant the tour managers knew Freeman staff were paying attention for such critical details as exactly how they want the lights hung. “I tell them, ‘You may be coming to a town you’ve never heard of, but we know what we’re doing.’”
According to Bruffy each crowd brings a different energy, and his main focus is everyone’s safety. His security team, who wear yellow shirts, are his eyes and ears, and they are constantly in touch. Whether it’s an inebriated reveler trying to get too close to the stage, a child who slips while running or an unknown person trying to sneak a peek from the golf course, the security of everyone at the Freeman Stage is paramount.
Harriette Tuttle is a Bayside resident who takes advantage of her home’s proximity to the Stage.
“We’re so lucky having this here,” she said. “What I like is how smoothly it all runs. Whether I come to Gov’t Mule, with its vibrant energy, or tonight’s beautiful ballet, everyone is always helpful, cheerful and orderly.
“When Michelle or Patti,” she said of Freeman and Freeman Foundation Executive Director Patti Grimes, “introduces the show, they always start with their gratitude for everyone who makes this possible. I like that. They talk about this venue under the stars. Tonight, the moon is shining brightly. It’s magical. This is a magical place.”
There are still a few more opportunities to experience the magic this season. To get information or purchase tickets for Michael Bolton, the Stage’s official season finale with the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, Hotel California, the Arts & Jazz Festival or the Gipsy Kings on Sunday, Sept. 16, go to www.freemanstage.org.
But the work is not over. Monday, Sept. 17, signifies the beginning of an exciting poetry program being introduced into Sussex County schools. The Freeman Stage mission continues...
By Christina Weaver
Special to the Coastal Point