Filling the World with Love and Theater: Interview with Harry Dietzler of Upper Darby Summer Stage

Harry Dietzler is executive and artistic director of The Upper Darby Summer Stage, one of America’s oldest and most successful theater programs. He founded the Summer Stage 41 years ago, as a young 20 year old drama teacher, and the program has gone from strength to strength, training dozens of locally and nationally known performers. Dietzler won the 2011 Barrymore Lifetime Achievement Award from the Philadelphia theater community for his efforts.

Many people see Dietzler as a star-maker. However, his work is much more than launching careers and putting Upper Darby on the map culturally. Ultimately, he gives a chance to every young person who wants to learn. He has become an important educator whose work keeps theater alive and raises the interest in theater arts for generations to come.

The Summer Stage just opened its 2016 season with Nice Work, If You Can Get It by Joe DiPietro, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin and based on materials from Guy Bolton and P.G. Woodhouse. In spite of all the preparations for this huge undertaking, Dietzler made time available for this Phindie interview.

Harry Dietzler conducts Fill-the-World-with-Love with former student Tina Faye & Summer Stage students, 2015
Harry Dietzler conducts Fill-the-World-with-Love with former student Tina Fey & Summer Stage students, 2015. View video.

Henrik Eger: Looking back at your childhood, when first did you realize that you liked music and theater?

Harry Dietzler: I joined our parish players with my family in 1972 and got into a show at Bonner High School during junior year. My life changed when our director, Joe Hayes, heard me play the piano and handed me the score to Oklahoma. He said, “Do you think you can play this?” I went home for the weekend, learned the score, came back on Monday—and he made me the rehearsal pianist for the show.

Eger: Great. And how did Summer Stage come into existence?

Dietzler: After I graduated high school, Joe Hayes hired me as the second pianist for the Surflight Summer Theater in Beach Haven, [New Jersey,] where we did 11 musicals in 11 weeks. It was there that the idea for Summer Stage started in my mind. I saw that you could perform a show at night and rehearse another during the day. That’s where I got the idea of rehearsing multiple shows at the same time. In our first few years we actually did three Mainstage shows and six children’s shows! Eventually, we’ve scaled back the number of shows, but have greatly improved the production values in 41 years.

Eger: What’s your guiding philosophy in nurturing the Upper Darby Summer Stage?

Dietzler: Our philosophy and one of our guiding mottos is “to fill the world with love.” It came from a song that we used in our very first show and has stuck with us through the 41 seasons. We look at our opportunity to present our performances as a way of sharing the talent that we have with our community.

Eger: You are well-known and respected in the Greater Philadelphia Area for bringing together kids,  talented young actors, and theater artists for a very intensive and powerful six-week summer session. Many theater people point out how humble you have remained, in spite of the hundreds of successful productions that attract thousands of visitors—in show after show.

Dietzler: I recently saw a movie about Beethoven. I was struck by his action after he conducted his glorious ninth Symphony and thinking of who he was and what he brought to the arts and to the world. He bowed to his audience—a sign of respect for those that we wish to honor. So I’d like to think of our theater as a way of servingour community and bringing the arts and culture to young people especially.

Eger: You not only teach acting and directing, but the entire range of theater arts—with the help of experienced directors, choreographers, designers, etc., who are training kids from schools all over the Greater Philadelphia area as well as university graduates who are testing the theater arts waters.

Dietzler: We are seeing more and more of our Summer Stagers pursuing theater and music in college and we are happy that they return to us as teachers and staff.

Eger: Could you give an example of a former Summer Stage participant who became a young professional and who is returning to your program as a theater artist?

Dietzler: Our set designer, Timothy Bruno, created a wonderful design for our present Mainstage show. This was Tim’s first Mainstage design but he has been with the program since high school. Tim went on to Point Park College in Pittsburgh and returned to us as an experiences set and costume designer, now teaching our high school kids during the school year and designing props for our children’s shows. He’s a perfect example of the circle of talent, starting here, gaining professional experience, and then returning to teach our kids.

Eger: You also have experienced technical staff members on board who are contributing to your Mainstage production.

Dietzler: Yes, for example, in Nice Work, If You Can Get It, it’s worth mentioning our production values: the set, lighting, costumes, and sound are equal to anything you see in Philadelphia theater. Similarly, our prop master, Patrick Ahearn, went above and beyond by building most of the furniture that you saw on the stage.

Eger: The Upper Darby High School, one of the largest in the area, not only teaches academic subjects, but also practical skills. Are you integrating some of those students with their hands-on skills or, are you hiring young theater professionals from other colleges and theaters?

Dietzler: The staff we use in our costume shop and our set shop are professionals who are working at other theaters throughout the year. We are blessed to have their talents during the summer. But, we also give many students their first opportunity to work on our children’s shows as choreographers, set designers, or costume designers, etc.

Eger: It’s difficult for young theater artists who just graduated from college to get hired by theaters, develop their skills, earn another entry on their resume, and network with professionals and each other.

Dietzler: True. That’s why our program is a wonderful opportunity for young people in college or right out of college who have an interest in a career in theater—not just performing, but also to develop socially and to meet and work with other students with the same interests.

Chris Luner, Summer Stage production manager, hanging up a banner
Chris Luner, Summer Stage production manager, hanging up a banner

Eger: Quite a few youngsters who “broke their legs” on your stage as participants in the much talked about Summer Stage program became well known artists in the theater, music, and educational world.

Dietzler: There is a page on our website that links to many professional websites of our alumni who are out there working in the arts. Summer Stagers are also successful parents, homemakers, lawyers, doctors, florists, priests, teachers, police officers, paramedics, community theater performers and directors, accountants, FBI and Secret Service employees, nurses, and members of many other professions.  Here are just a few of our successful Summer Stage alumni:

  • Tina Fey, who directed children’s theater, star and writer of 30 Rock, was head writer and Weekend News anchor for Saturday Night Live and wrote the screenplay for and starred in Mean Girls.
  • Terry Nolen and Amy Murphy who run the Arden Theatre.
  • Matthew Cloran was the Director of The Greater Philadelphia Cappies, taught theater at The Haverford School, and released a CD, Finally Free. He is a freelance director and choreographer.
  • Tony Costandino is the production stage manager for The Pennsylvania Ballet.
  • Donata Cucinotta is a professional opera singer.
  • Damian Holbrook, TV Guide Magazine senior writer, who interviewed Summer Stage alumna Tina Fey.
  • Kevin Dietzler danced in the Walnut Street Theatre Upper Darby Performing Arts Center’s Forty Second Street and White Christmas. He is a freelance choreographer and director.
  • Tom Donaghy is a professional playwright who has had his plays produced at the Arden and Philadelphia Theatre Companies and wrote and produced ABC-TV’s The Whole Truth.
  • Ed Fiscella runs a very successful program in New Jersey called Mainstage Center for the Arts which includes a Summer Stage program modeled after the Upper Darby Summer Stage.
  • Steven Fisher is the founder and director of the Keystone Boys Choir and had a New York run of the musical he composed for Summer Stage, Izzie and the Pretty-Ugly Spell.
  • Krissy Fraelich starred in the Arden Theatre’s recent Next to Normal, sang with the Summer Club, and performed with Linda Eder on a CD and at Carnegie Hall.
  • John Hoey directs one of Philly’s top bands, The John Hoey Orchestra.
  • Tom Hoey II, a children’s theater actor and drummer for Joseph, has played for tours of Grease and West Side Story. He is a drummer in Nashville and tours with top country stars.
  • Monica Horan-Rosenthal was a regular on Everybody Loves Raymond. She recently produced The Three Maries in Philadelphia and the revival of Spring Awakening on Broadway.
  • Dr. Kevin Kane teaches theater at UCLA and in Los Angeles to underprivileged kids.
  • Vince Leonard has copied and arranged music for Peter Nero and the Walnut Street Theatre. He and Tom Rudolph have authored several books on computer music.
  • Garry Lennon is a professor of costuming at Cal State University and created the costumes for the LA version of Sister Act.
  • Alyse Alan Louis performed on Broadway as Sophie in Mamma Mia. She will open on Broadway in Disaster.
  • Tim Mackay runs the eastern division of Flying by Foy and has supervised the flying for many shows on Broadway and television.
  • Guy Mandia danced in the international tour of West Side Story.
  • John McDevitt is a reporter and editor for KYW 1060.
  • Mark Morgan created and runs the Moorestown Theater Company, which includes a Summer Stage program, modeled after the Upper Darby Summer Stage. He has won multiple awards at the National Junior Theater Festival, and has hosted a world premiere and several East coast premieres of new children’s musicals.
  • Jeremy Morse starred in the Walnut Theatre’s production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying andjust started on Broadway in the new musical Waitress.
  • Stacy Moscotti starred in a national tour of The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
  • Patricia Noonan is a busy actress, singer, and writer in NYC.
  • John Roney shared the role of Barnum with Burt Lancaster in the TV movie Barnum.
  • Chris Sapienza was seen on Law and Order SVU and many other TV shows and commercials.
  • Julianna Schauerman creates industrials for major corporations with her own company, Zakarak Productions. She recently produced The Three Maries at the Prince Theatre in Philadelphia.
  • Amanda Snarski performed on CBS for a Hairspray live audition and played the leading role at Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven.
  • Marcus Stevens is performing Off-Broadway in Forbidden Broadway. He wrote the book and lyrics to Yo, Vikings!, which premiered at Summer Stage. He and Brian Lowdermilk won the Richard Rodgers Award for their musical, Red.
  • Rachel Stevens, a freelance director, has worked at the American Repertory Theater, Lincoln Center, and Paper Mill Playhouse.
  • Josh Young starred in the world premiere of Amazing Grace on Broadway.

Eger: Have some of the former Summer Stage actors and members of the artistic team who became successful in the professional world returned to your Performing Arts Center and given talks to the next generation of young theater artists?

Dietzler: I have heard them say that they value the pace at which we teach and put up a show. That has helped them work in many situations. They also valued the sense of teamwork and enthusiasm. Our Summer Stagers support each other in all areas.

Eger: You created scenes in your latest production of Nice Work, If You Can Get It that many smaller theaters could not afford, like involving a huge cast of over 40 actors, plus a large orchestra, and spectacular effects like releasing thousands of bubbles from the Performing Arts Center’s expansive ceiling during an entertaining bathroom scene with eight Bubble Girls dressed in expensive and highly innovative bathing costumes with glass globes of different sizes hanging from their bodies. All of those costumes and props cost a great deal of money. How do you finance these spectacular shows and the many intensive training programs?

Dietzler: We have many dedicated sponsors and donors who support us and the participants pay a fee. Our biggest income is from tickets sales and we are blessed with a large theater and can sell up to 1,200 seats per show, so that is a big factor. Of course, Upper Darby Township and School District provide us with a magnificent theater and the infrastructure to do our work.

Chris Luner and Harry Dietzler in front of Summer Stage kids
Chris Luner and Harry Dietzler in front of Summer Stage kids

Eger: Similarly, how do you handle what could easily become an administrative nightmare, especially as a number of the participants in your many Summer Stage programs are underage?

Dietzler: We have a great staff of more than 100 who manage all of the various aspects of the program. Our Production Manager, Chris Luner, is amazing. He manages the staffs for all seven shows, oversees the technical rehearsals, and does it all with a positive attitude and boundless energy. Chris is another example of a former Summer Stage student who went on to Wagner College to study Arts Administration, then stage managed a Broadway show and tour, and then brought all of that experience back to our Summer Stage.

Eger: Great. Looking back at your over four decades of directing the Summer Stage, what did you change?

Dietzler: We’ve been adapting and changing all along. We’ve changed schedules, added an Apprentice and Rising Stars Program to train the actors earlier; added a Technical Theater Program to focus on training our tech students; and created a Marketing Department to sell our shows to a wider audience.

Eger: Given the many hundreds of performances with children, teenagers, and young professionals, what have parents, young actors, and theater artists who went through the Summer Stage experience told you about its impact on their lives?

Dietzler: They will all tell me that the program has given them life-long friendships. We bring together young people from many schools and communities who all share the same interests and passions and we set them loose to express themselves creatively. This creates a special bond that lasts long after the show is over.

Eger: In closing, could you share something with us about your life that very few people know?

Dietzler: I am very proud of my children, all of whom have been performers and staff members at Summer Stage. I met my wife here and Summer Stage has been a major part of our family life. My parents were involved in theater and all of my siblings participated in Summer Stage. My family is the reason I am successful.

Eger: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Dietzler: Thank you for your interest in our young people!

Eger: Harry, WE all owe you and your staff and volunteers a great deal of debt. Like many thousands of Summer Stage friends before me, I salute you.

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