Cape May Stage was founded by Cape May County resident, Michael Laird, a graduate in Theatre Arts from The Richard Stockton College. In the same year, it was incorporated as a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation.
The first official performance was “Sea Marks” directed by John Gulley and starring Tom McCarthy and Jeannie Waters. The show was staged at the Chalfonte Hotel and Cold Spring Village.
Three shows were performed in each of these years with superb critical reviews. Performance venues included the Chalfonte Hotel, Cape May Institute, the Art League and Congress Hall. John Alvarez makes his Cape May Stage debut as Stage Manager. Volunteer “Buddies” group is formed to help at the shows.
Ambitious seven-month season is launched. Among the firsts for Cape May Stage at this time were: Board of Trustees (six members) were installed; Cabaret shows were inaugurated at the Chalfonte; Outreach Programs were launched including workshops, performances and theatre classes at area schools and community college.
Following the use of the city’s Welcome Center at Lafayette and Bank Streets for some shows in 1993/94, Cape May Stage obtained a three-year lease from the city in 1995. Grant funding was awarded from the NJ State Council on the Arts in 1996. During this time two campaigns were initiated: an Annual Giving, and a Capital Campaign for new seating and lights. Canyon Allen joined the staff as Technical Director and Michael Carleton made his first appearance in Cape May directing “The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged.”
Theatre programming expanded to an eight-month/six shows season which Cape May Stage has retained ever since. Michael Laird expanded programming to include film shorts and Cape May Stage and Film becomes an unofficial new name. In May, 2000 two of the theatre industry’s great stars, Estelle Parsons and Robert Prosky, kicked off a spectacular production year for Cape May Stage with their memorable performance of “Love Letters”. The rest of the season didn’t disappoint, particularly the staging of “Patsy Cline, A Portrait in Song” written by Laird and Joe Stinson and the highly acclaimed “Art” with Paul Bernardo, Chris Dolman and Mark Rector. Cape May Stage was one of the first regional theatres in the country to produce this popular new drama by Yazmina Reza. Michael is found to have cancer in July 2000.
Cape May Stage loses its beloved founder on January 6, 2001 as the cancer takes his life. The Board of Trustees selects Michael Carleton as its new Artistic Director. The 2001, 2002, & 2003 seasons bring remarkable audience growth as Michael Carleton demonstrates a similar versatility as our founder in his skills with acting, directing, playwriting, play selection etc. The hiring of retired business executive, Joe Pannullo, as our first Managing Director allowed Cape May Stage to focus on marketing, administrative and fiscal procedures, and expansion of Grant funding for the theatre.
Marketing and Development programs, financed by new grant funds, were formalized and implemented. Audience continues to grow as a result, at the pace of 20% plus per year. The season-opening Flying Solo Festival‚ is inaugurated. Board membership reaches the level of eighteen Trustees. The theatre signs a long term lease with the city of Cape May for their production space at the corner of Bank and Lafayette Streets, and undertakes a $1.4 million capital campaign to restore the building and create a Modern theatre during a period of three years.
Cape May Stage soared to great heights in 2006-2008. Most notable was Project Encore – a multi-year restoration and renovation of the Equity theatre’s historic home at Bank & Lafayette Streets. In the winter/spring of 2006, the exterior of the old church was fully restored and a new dressing room was added on to the building. In 2007 the box office area and bathrooms were renovated and the outside piazza built. In 2008, the interior of the building was restored, including the installation of comfortable stadium seats on risers. This work was all accomplished due to the generosity of the people of Cape May who donated over $1 million to the capital campaign. Box office records continued to be broken with sold out performances to such notable shows as “The Price” featuring Robert Prosky, “The Big-Bang” and “This Wonderful Life”.
This period represents the greatest artistic growth in the history of Cape May Stage under the leadership of Producing Artistic Director Roy Steinberg. Most of the casts had Broadway credits and often included Tony Award winners like Karen Ziemba and Emmy Award nominees like Ellen Dolan, Jon Lindstrom or David Birney. Production values soared to new heights with breath taking sets and 21st century lighting and sound designs. Gorgeous costumes designed by top designers wowed our patrons. Sold out shows like “Say Goodnight Gracie”, “Steel Magnolias” “The 39 Steps”, “Social Security”, and “I Hate Hamlet” made patrons reserve tickets long in advance. Premieres like “Class” “The Little Prince” and “The Woolgatherer” spread our name across the country when they played in other venues. More challenging fare like “Topdog/Underdog”, “Red”, and “Happy Days” brought more serious minded patrons to our theatre. We expanded our venue with a new mezzanine to accommodate the demand for more tickets. In 2012, the Belvedere was erected outside our theatre to sell tickets. We added a professional scene shop in Wildwood that also was used as a rehearsal space and storage area. A new program called the Second Stage Series was launched during this period on Monday nights. During July and August we hosted some of the biggest names in theatre like Christine Ebersole, Tovah Feldshuh, Maureen McGovern, Faith Prince, Anthony Rapp, Jarrod Spector, Liz and Ann Hampston Callaway, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, Ron Raines, Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Akers, Anita Gillette, Mary Testa, and Dominic Chianese. Other Monday nights introduced modern dance, clowns, musicians, magicians, poets, play readings, and magic shows. Our education and outreach had the greatest growth during this time frame. For younger children, we have a winter play and summer camp. For college students we created an Emerging Artists program that produces and performs its own play. For young professionals we have a season-long intern program that pays a stipend and houses young artists from around the nation. We celebrate the 25th anniversary of Cape May Stage in 2013 with special programming.
In celebration of the second half of our twenty fifth season, we pulled out the stops in our programming for 2014 which many patrons called the best season in our history. Video projections and a story slam informed “The Mountaintop” with the entire artistic team from Los Angeles. The largest cast ever assembled on our stage graced “Moon Over Buffalo” and special effects caused a home to be demolished every night in “Blithe Spirit”. Our production of “Other Desert Cities” boasted some of the greatest performances on any stage and patrons preferred that production to others they had seen in Philadelphia, Washington and even New York. A tour-de-force performance by Michael Basile wowed audiences in “Mistakes Were Made” and our “Merry Melodies” was an audience favorite. The 2015 season brought an all-female playwright season to our stage as we joined in a national conversation about producing work by women writers. The season kicks off with “Red Hot Patriot” by Margaret and Allison Engel. Margaret Engel had been a participant in our 2014 National Writers’ Symposium.