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Morrisville’s Dramatic Turn

This article by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 12, 1999. All rights reserved.

It’s a scene straight out of Busby Berkeley’s "Babes

in Arms." A married couple with a lifelong love of theater —

and a small theater company — arrive in small-town America and

announce, "Come on, kids, let’s put on a show!" The community

instantly mobilizes. The town donates an old municipal garage to be

transformed into a theater. Volunteers come walking in off the street.

They donate seating, lights, paint, costumes. Some shyly offer their

skills: redoing the sidewalks, building sets, upholstering the seats,

painting the walls. Everyone’s involved — even the mayor stops

by each weekend to help with clean up. And the surprise hook at the

end of the film? This scene is real and it is taking place just across

the river in Morrisville, Pennsylvania.

Actors’ NET theater company inaugurates its new home theater in the

Morrisville Heritage Center on North Delmorr Avenue in Morrisville

on Friday, May 14, at 8 p.m., with a gala opening to benefit the Morrisville

Heritage Development Association (MHDA). The company kicks things

off with a production of the musical, "Man of La Mancha."

Tickets for this performance only are $25, with proceeds supporting

the further development of the Morrisville riverfront, which includes

the Heritage Center. The show continues through May 30.

Two weeks before the grand opening, the space still has a way to go

in its transformation. The floor of the theater is still a jumble

of sheetrock, two-by-fours, and as-yet-uncushioned theater seats;

the walls are still cinder-block gray or nail-pocked wall board. But

with a wave of some paint chips and a few fabric swatches, the space

is transformed into a comfortable 75-seat theater done up in complimentary

shades of plum, rosewood, blue, and gray.

The sheer volume of energy and purposeful activity generated by the

dozen or so volunteers bustling about leaves no doubt that the opening

night audience will be in for a treat. An hour before rehearsal, it

is impossible to tell the performers from the work crew from the community

volunteers — and sometimes they are, in reality, one and the same.

Jamie Bradley, who plays the lead as the musical’s Don Quixote/Cervantes,

for example, is a finish carpenter by day. He arrives early at the

theater sporting the perfect curved mustachio — and his carpenter’s

belt. Within minutes he’s framing a door backstage. Everyone has multiple

parts in this production — and the excitement is contagious.

The theater is the dream child of Cheryl and Joe Doyle, co-founders

of Actors’ NET (U.S. 1, October 30, 1996), which, since its 1996 debut,

has performed in a temporary home at Trenton’s Artists Showcase Theater.

The move could not have happened without the wholehearted support

of the Borough of Morrisville. For the borough, particularly for the

non-profit MHDA, completion of theater is the first step of an ambitious

plan to renovate four buildings, once part of the town’s waterworks

system, that sit along the Delaware River. MHDA, which is leasing

the former garage for $1 a year, will share an office in the new Heritage

Center with Actors’ NET.

`We’re just incredibly lucky to be

living in this town at the exact time that they were looking to do

this — to have been in existence as a theater company for only

three years and actually get our own place is just amazing," Cheryl

Doyle says. Joe adds, "Conversely, they (the MHDA) were happy

to find us, because we were a project that they could implement relatively

quickly to show the city that things could get done."

The Doyles are no longer "Babes in Arms," but theater has

been an avocation for both of them from a very young age. They grew

up in different parts of New England, Cheryl in Longmeadow, Massachusetts,

and Joe in Bristol, Connecticut. Cheryl’s mother had trained to be

a theater director, but had given up her plans to raise a family,

returning to community theater only after her children were older.

Her father was an engineer. Her mother arranged for lessons in speech

and acting when, at age 13, it became clear that Cheryl was committed

to performing. "My father was a little wary. He kept handing me

brochures about learning computers, so I’d have something to fall

back on — which, of course, is what I ended up falling back on!"

She majored in theater in college, starting out at Bard and graduating

from Sarah Lawrence, Class of ’72 — where her biggest influence

was not a theater course, but Joseph Campbell’s mythology class the

last year he taught at Sarah Lawrence. "The things I learned in

that class still advise my life," she says.

Not long after graduating, Doyle realized that although she loved

performing, she had little stomach for theater life. "I just never

had that emotional stamina to go after the work the way you’re supposed

to," she says, " — and the more I saw of the business,

the less I liked it." She did, however, do several seasons of

summer stock. It was during her second season in 1977 with the Chocolate

Cove Players in New Brunswick, Canada, that she met Joe Doyle.

Joe, in the meantime, avidly pursued all aspects of theater throughout

high school — to the total bemusement of his family. He entered

college intent on a theater degree, but was soon side-tracked by the

war in Vietnam. He enlisted and shipped to Vietnam where he was given

the job of reporter for the Marines.

Doyle returned to his home town and worked for a few years as a reporter

before the smell of the greasepaint beckoned once again. With his

G.I. benefits, he enrolled in the Leland Powers School of Radio, Television,

and Theater in Boston, planning to study playwrighting. He found himself

immersed in all aspects of theater — and performing — once

again. Upon graduation, one of his instructors recommended him to

the director of the Chocolate Cove Players summer stock.

They married in 1978 and moved to New York City. For the first five

years after they married, both the Doyles stopped performing. They

eventually realized, however, that neither of them wanted to live

without theater. "It wasn’t acceptable," Cheryl admits.

A move to New Hope, Pennsylvania, in 1986 was inspired by Cheryl’s

mother who had relocated to the town after her husband died. "I

needed to get out of the city, and New Hope is a pretty great first

place to move to when you’ve just left New York," says Cheryl.

"With all the artists and performers, and all that was going on,

the culture shock really wasn’t that great." Late in 1990 they

made the move to Morrisville.

By that time Cheryl was already commuting to her job at Environ, the

Carnegie Center-based environmental consulting firm where she is now

a senior editor. Joe, upon turning 40, had decided he had to pursue

performing full time. "We both knew that there was nothing else

that he wanted to do with his life but be an actor, so we both decided

he should just go for it," says Cheryl.

He soon won parts with three national tours, including the first multi-million

dollar touring production of the "Wizard of Oz." After almost

three years continuously on the road, he knew he had been away from

home long enough. Back in Morrisville, Joe first tried dinner theater,

but the quality of the productions — and the level of pay —

were discouraging.

He and Cheryl decided to form their own theater company, Actors’ NET.

"We wanted to do something where we could really feel good about

the quality and level of the production," Joe says. In 1996, Joe

walked into a town council meeting and asked if they could recommend

a building that might be used as a theater. That night he met Judi

Frigerio, coordinator of the borough’s economic development commission,

who asked, "Why not a performing arts center?" Actors’ NET

had found its fairy godmother.

Frigerio, who is also founder and coordinator of MHDA, is an enthusiastic

and knowledgeable advocate for Morrisville. She immediately recognized

that the Doyles’ dreams and the borough’s needs were complimentary.

"Morrisville doesn’t really have the space to put in any new development,

so we’re looking at adaptive reuse of abandoned or underutilized facilities,"

she says. Originally she brought the Doyles to look at a vacant elementary

school, but they all agreed that ultimately the costs of purchasing

and renovating the building were too high.

The restoration of the historic 1894 pump house and the adjacent water

works buildings located right on the Delaware River was also a priority

for the borough. Everyone soon realized that here they had a perfect

fit. "This location, the waterworks complex, is so incredible,"

Frigerio says. "We’re right between the Delaware and the canal,

just across the historic Calhoun Street bridge from Trenton. Literally

hundreds of New Jersey state workers walk past here along the river

at lunch every day, and we’re easily accessible from so many major

highways." The borough leased the building for the theater to

MHDA for $1 a year, and the municipal authority has entered into a

lease-purchase agreement with MHDA for the other buildings.

In addition to the Heritage Center housing the theater,

plans for the complex include a small cafe overlooking the Delaware

River, a computer learning center, and facilities for hikers. The

1894 pump house will be preserved as a visitor’s center and exhibit

hall. "It’s part of the Delaware and Leheigh Canal management

plan," says Frigerio. "The center will provide information

on heritage, tourism, cultural activities. It will also be a display

and exhibit space for artists, river exhibits — anything that

relates to what we’re doing here."

The project will also be integrated with the National Park Service’s

Delaware River Heritage Trail, which begins in Trenton and crosses

the Calhoun Street bridge to follow the canal tow path that runs behind

the pump house site. The trail is part of the urban Appalachian trail

that is being developed from Maine to Florida.

Cheryl notes that Frigerio has been instrumental in guiding the project

through various town council, zoning, and state approval processes.

Frigerio emphasizes the remarkable community response that the theater

and heritage center has generated. "This is such an achievable

goal, and the whole town has jumped on the band wagon to make sure

that this thing gets done. We’re really a team. Decisions are made

collectively. This is truly a community effort — a team effort.

Everyone plays a role."

The Doyles agree that the townspeople’s involvement has been amazing.

"There are more and more volunteers all the time. Today someone

offered to redo the sidewalks," says Joe. Most of the theater’s

movie house seats were donated by an area man who had kept them in

a barn for 10 years. When a $1,400 estimate came back from one shop

for reupholstering 10 of the seats, a woman from Morrisville Upholsterers

volunteered to her labor — and then decided she should do all

of them. A treasured gift, donated by one of the company’s actresses,

are eight seats she rescued from Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater before

it was demolished. They had been in her basement for 15 years, and

will now occupy the first row of the first raised section of seats.

Actors’ NET has ambitious plans for fully utilizing their new home.

After closing out their current season with "Man of La Mancha,"

they will offer four productions during the summer, and a show a month

from September through next May. The Doyles plan to include a variety

of crowd-pleasing classics, comedies, and musicals — along with

new works. In addition, a sub-group of Actors NET — the Way, Way,

Way Off-Broadway Revue — will offer cabaret-style revues, and

there will be a four-week summer children’s theater camp.

Rehearsal begins for "Man of La Mancha." As piano and voices

blend magically and a soft breeze blows off the river, the bustle

stills. Neighbors from Morrisville stop in with broad smiles, clearly

at home in the theater, clearly delighted that it’s part of their

town. Watching the pleasure and the pride, it is a sure bet that on

opening night, as the last bars of "The Impossible Dream"

ring out, there won’t be an empty seat, or a dry eye, in the house.

— Tricia Fagan

Man of La Mancha, Actors’ NET, 635 North Delmorr

Avenue, Morrisville, 215-295-3694. The musical tale of Don Quixote

continues to May 30. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 6

p.m. $15 adults; $13 seniors & children. Opening night benefit for

the Morrisville Heritage Development Association, $25, Friday,

May 14, 8 p.m.


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