New stage on the way

The daffodils are up, the robins have returned, the beach communities are stretching, yawning and coming back to life. Spring is right around the corner, and summer will be here before we know it. As winter ends and the sun begins to warm the sand and the fields again, there is a question crackling through offices and gyms and supermarkets...

Who’s coming to the Freeman Stage this year?

The anticipation builds every year around this time, and this — the 10th year for the entertainment venue west of Fenwick Island — promises to bring the same caliber of national, regional and local performers to the stage.

In fact, the stage itself will be bigger and better this year.

The former stage was demolished last fall to make room for one that better suits the level of performers that the Freeman Foundation has been bringing year after year.

The new structure, known in the business as an SL320, is actually a mobile stage, but it will be used throughout the whole season at Freeman, according to Alyson Cunningham, public relations manager for the Freeman Foundation and the Freeman Stage.

The SL320, Cunningham said, is “more of an industry-standard” type of stage. That upgrade will make preparation and set-up easier for both Freeman production staff and the artists’ own production teams because it is a well-known stage configuration and “everybody knows what to expect,” Cunningham said.

While the stage has not yet been moved in, concrete pads have been poured in advance of its arrival. Patrons will notice this year that the lawn in front of the stage has been re-graded and made less flat. “We hope that it helps with sight lines,” Cunningham said.

Once the Freeman season kicks off in May, patrons will also notice a few tweaks to the way the venue is set up. For those who hold sponsor passes for events, a separate entrance gate will be set up.

“It’s nothing we’re building,” Cunningham said. “It’s always been there; we’re just utilizing it.” Patrons will also see more tables and seating around the site, to give concertgoers somewhere to sit and enjoy the offerings of the many food trucks that now line up near the gate before each concert.

An earlier gate-opening time will allow those same folks to dine at a more leisurely pace before each show this summer. Gates will now open at 5:45 p.m. before each evening show.

The changes were the result of surveys filled out by patrons last season, Cunningham said, as well as discussions among the staff about how to improve the Freeman concert experience.

“We’re all about improving the experience for the patrons,” she said.

With the stage entering its second decade this year, Cunningham offered a few snapshots of its growth, starting with attendance. In its first year, 13,000 people attended shows at the Freeman Stage. Last year, the foundation welcomed 62,000, she said. Over the first nine seasons, 322,000 people attended shows at Freeman.

Another source of pride for those involved in the establishment of the Freeman Stage program has been the success of its Arts in Education and outreach programs, which bring children from Sussex County in Delaware and Worcester County in Maryland to free programs every year. Since its inception, 62,000 area residents have attended free shows at the Freeman Stage. Last year, 8,000 students got to attend the shows; this year, the stage has received confirmation so far for 6,200 more.

With all the changes and a 10th season on the way, the excitement is building toward the foundation’s March 15 reveal of the summer concert lineup.

“It’s exciting,” Cunningham said. “Every year, right around the beginning of March, you can just feel the buzz.”

While the actual reveal is an invitation-only event, as soon as it is over, the list of shows goes up on the Freeman Stage Facebook page and website.

When ticket sales begin this year, patrons will notice that Freeman has moved to a new ticket company called Eventbrite. Cunningham said Eventbrite is a more well-known ticket system, and is “more user-friendly, more tablet- and mobile-friendly.”

While Cunningham would not offer any tidbits about the lineup, she promised that it would live up to the organization’s reputation for delivering a summer full of diverse performances.

“Everyone seems to be waiting with bated breath,” Cunningham said. “With it being the 10th season, we’re even more excited to let the community know.”