(Our guest for this episode is Mary Mahler. Mary is the founder of The Theater Academy of Delmarva. To hear our conversation, click here.)
Mary had been shy as a kid, mostly keeping to herself. Certainly some of this could be attributed to her inner nature, the personal qualities with which people are born. But there was also a certain amount of nurturing which had produced a girl not particularly fond of large groups of people or strong personalities. The demands of the social scene, even for kids, can be cruel and unwelcoming for those of an introverted disposition. So as life proved to be a dangerous gauntlet, the safety in keeping to oneself – sometimes physically but most certainly emotionally – seemed the obvious choice.
So, Mary was content to fade into the backstage of life, blending into the social scenes as needed, and looking up to her older sister for lessons on how to live. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Mary’s family moved to Delmarva during the early months of life which predate most people’s memories, and began attending Salisbury Christian School. Her introduction to theater happened when her older sister was auditioning for the school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. Too young to audition herself, Mary participated in her sister’s audition to help run through lines. As a thank-you, or perhaps just because her older sister was awesome, she suggested to the director that Mary would make a good “Bielke,” the youngest of the five daughters in Fiddler.
The cast list came out a few days later. Her sister showed it to her, and there it was:
“Bielke ……………………………………………………. Mary Love”
Her passion for the stage was almost immediate. “I loved every minute of every practice and I was hooked. I was a very shy and anxious child but when I was on stage it all faded and I felt like a different person. It helped grow my confidence and my self esteem. [The theater] truly meant the world to me and … it just never stopped feeling that way. It was always the place where my troubles melted and nothing else mattered and it still is to this day. I continued to participate in every opportunity I could.”
Mary left Salisbury Christian School in 10th grade to attend Wi-Hi. She was soon frustrated with the lack of opportunities to act. Her outlet for expression was almost entirely gone. On occasion she was able to work with Community Players, but for the most part, the company was not for children. Finally, during her Junior year in high school, she found a lifeline. Mary crossed paths with a woman by the name of Susan Rogers who had opened a children’s theater company called The Mezzanine. Mary found a new home at The Mezzanine and soon rose into leadership positions. She not only performed but was given the opportunity to choreograph shows as well as assist Rogers with directing. If Mary’s sister had planted a theater seed, Rogers watered it until it grew and took root deep within, blossoming into a life-long passion.
Enter, stage left: College and Beyond.
After graduating from high school Mary attended Towson University and faced a question not unfamiliar to most college students. It was the dilemma of, “What is the responsible career choice?” versus, “What is my passion?” Theater was her passion. There wasn’t any question about that. But theater is art, and while Mary was familiar with the idea of the “starving artist,” she was quite sure the descriptor wasn’t one she aspired to have attributed to her.
It hardly seemed fair.
Sometimes – probably most times – that’s the way it goes. The responsible choice seems cruelly opposed to the feel good choice. But she was resigned to the reality of being an adult. There would be bills to pay, and she’d need a career that was going to help do that. Like it or not, if theater was going to come along for the ride, it was going to have to buckle into the back seat.
At least for the time being.
Fortunately, Mary was still able to pick a major that would keep her close to a lifelong love. She’d been introduced to American Sign Language (ASL) at an early age. As Mary recounts, it was yet another means of expressive communication she found came naturally to her. So, she chose to major in Deaf Studies and minor in theater.
After graduation, she looked for her first “big girl” job and found herself working for Deaf Independent Living Association (DILA). But it wasn’t long before the itch to be a part of theater came back. She returned by means of the Lower Shore Performing Arts Company (LSPAC) and Community Players, but she never forgot her frustrations trying to find a place to act as a youth. After mulling it over for a year, and discussing her ideas with her family, her mother and husband encouraged her to make a move on her desire to provide opportunities for children and teens to be active in theater. So, in the spring of 2018, Mahler created The Theater Academy of Delmarva with the stated mission of providing a place for “kids to learn and grow in their abilities, bring theater to the community, and become a cohesive team.”
“I started with 5 kids. It was tiny. We performed little things around the area … never main stage productions. Then it grew and we had more kids and it was clear this was a need for our community.”
Initially, the group would perform selected numbers from various well-known shows on stages throughout the community. There was the performance at the Salisbury Zoo, and the show at the Wicomico County Fair at Winterplace Park. If there was a stage and an opportunity, the kids would strut their stuff.
As the company grew from a small group performing a few numbers on various stages, to a larger group of almost three dozen kids, Mahler began to understand how important the company is for Delmarva. “I saw that this was making a difference in children’s lives the way Susan’s company did for me and the way Fiddler on the Roof did for me. I felt humbled and grateful to be able to be the person who was creating opportunities for kids like me who needed them and found a home in the theater and had nowhere else to go.”
According to Mahler, she never intended to tackle larger, full-length productions. “This was never my intention … I wanted to stay a little traveling theater team but they wanted it and I thought, ‘ok, let’s do a show.’” I had no idea what I was doing or getting myself into.
As it turned out, Mary’s “big girl” job at DILA was able to provide a venue to help the company grow. DILA’s facility included a multi-use auditorium in the rear of the building. Frankly, the room was perfect for a fledgling theater company that was testing the waters of a full-length production. For starters, it had the most important item for a performance troupe – a stage. Further, the seating area was large enough to host a moderate sized audience, but not so big that it outsized the production within.
The company’s first full-length production, Snow White went up in 2019. The successful run at DILA had Mary wondering what the show could achieve at a venue even more suited for theatrical performances than DILA was able to offer. As it turned out, The Mar-Va Theater in Pocomoke, MD was ready for just such a company. The throw-back venue comes complete with stage-lighting, dressing rooms under the stage, a ticket box, a concession stand, and seating for upwards of 700 audience members on the main, sloped level as well as the large balcony.*
To date, the company has performed three full-length productions with a fourth in the works – Snow White (2019), Cinderella (2020), and Frozen Jr. (2021). The Lion King is up in spring 2022.
Mary’s dream for the company continues to grow. She looks forward to a day when they have their own rehearsal space. She’d also like to offer dance classes, vocal lessons, acting lessons on a more robust level than she can currently offer. “I love it so much and when I am with the kids doing theater it never feels like work. I think we are getting close to reaching that goal.”
Your chance to see Frozen Jr. is here. TAD is offering an encore performance with 4 shows on the first weekend of November, 2021. You can purchase tickets by visiting this website or by clicking using the QR code below.
(*Officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Mar-Va Theater is a show in and of itself. According to the information provided on the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, the Mar-Va Theater was built in 1927, in an effort to revitalize the central business district after a fire had destroyed the area a few years earlier. And, other than an artistic update which took place in 1937, the building remains in its original form.)