UPPER DARBY>> Hundreds of students from around the area fill the Upper Darby High School every summer, not for summer school, for the arts. They move en masse to various areas of the school’s endless maze of hallways, stairwells and classrooms to simultaneously prep for three upcoming shows that will be performed in the 1,600-seat Upper Darby Performing Arts Center.
In one room students are doing choreography for “The Lion King, Jr.” and in the next room vocal practice for “The Little Mermaid, Jr.” In the production wing of the school costumers are measuring and sewing garments for pieces that may be used for the season as their clothing racks line the hallways with costumes that may work for a certain show. Meanwhile painters and carpenters are getting set construction ready for “Flat Stanley, Jr.” which will be on stage the first week of July.
For hours every day throughout the summer students and professionals are dedicated to their involvement in seven shows that will be performed in the PAC every season. The hustle and bustle at the ever-revolving arena keeps all the players in constant motion as they gear up for new shows that open weekly from July to mid-August.
This is the Upper Darby Summer Stage Program.
Known simply as Summer Stage, it’s an iconic arts venture in the county that allows students from the area to participate in all facets of theater production from prop-making to acting, and everything in between. It’s a safe haven that provides an outlet for students who love the arts to participate in the largest performing arts center in Delaware County as they put on six children’s theater productions and one mainstage production every season. Students from different schools and communities all converge onto the PAC every summer to create friendships and fun theater, a tradition that has extended to its 43rd season this year.
“That’s the big attraction, that they meet the same kinds of kids and click with their friends,” said Summer Stage founder and PAC Executive Director Harry Dietzler. “We’re a recreation program for kids who want to do theater and enjoy it.”
The program started in 1976 when Dietzler was still a student at Temple University. He and his friends would sit around asking each other what they wanted to do to pass the summer doldrums. The 20-year-old realized that the newly built PAC wasn’t being utilized. Then-Upper Darby Mayor Sonny Kane essentially handed him the keys to the theater with a $4,000 budget and Summer Stage was born.
“I’ve enjoyed giving that kind of opportunity to students who want to direct their first show, or choreograph their first show,” said Dietzler. “You have to start somewhere.”
The first season of summer stage started with nine shows at about 300 people per show and a paid staff of four. At present, the theater sells out many of its seven seasonal shows and now has a staff of 130 that works full-time for eight weeks. Summer Stage is now encompassed by smaller programs including the Theater Bugs, Magic Makers, Rising Stars, Children’s Theater, Mainstage, dance troupe/cabaret, and more. Involvement in these groups range from 10 years old (Theater Bugs) up to 28 (Mainstage).
“I never thought I’d still be a part of it,” Dietzler joked about his over 40-year involvement with the program given the age cutoff.
Like Dietzler, the legacy of the program has outshined any age barriers given its distinct alumnus.
Participants over the decades include actor Jeremy Morse who was an ensemble member of the original production of “Waitress” and Emmy-winner Tina Fey, who wrote the screenplay for the film “Mean Girls” and the musical book for its Broadway adaptation which features Summer Stage alumnus Gianna Yannelli, who is the understudy for the role of Janis Sarkisian.
Success of past participants aside, Dietzler really focused on the friendships that are created in the program as a highlight. He said one younger child was going to quit after his first day, but was encouraged to come back. Later that week he was awarded a Summer Stage Student of the Week award by the staff for his participation and activeness in the program.
In another year, a young girl joined the program who was starting to find her voice again after years of being mute. One day the actress playing Belle in a production of “Beauty and the Beast” befriended the girl and they went out to lunch with some other members of the cast. The girl’s mother approached Dietzler with tears of joy about how happy she was to know that her daughter was included.
“Here’s a girl that was so introverted and didn’t even speak in school, and kind of came out of that and found her voice, found some friends,” said Dietzler about that story. “That, to me, is just as important as Tina Fey or anybody who’s (acting professionally).
The 43rd season of Summer Stage starts July 3 with “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley, Jr.” The Mainstage Production this year is “42nd Street” which starts July 27.
For more information on Summer Stage and the season’s shows visit www.udpac.org.