Friends of Donna Swajeski, the Delaware Children’s Theatre’s newest artistic director, consider it a privilege to know her. Her sense of humor, generous and friendly manner and strong professional talent instantly captivate those she works and interacts with. And even though Swajeski has been recognized as being among the best script writers in daytime television, she follows some very large footsteps here at home at the Delaware Children’s Theatre (DCT). Her mother, Marie Swajeski, founded the DCT 40 years ago, serving as its creative director. Since its inception, Marie Swajeski has served as the theater’s driving force, helping hundreds of children develop a love for performing, and attracting thousands of families to the historic theater on Delaware Avenue for sell-out performances of some of the most beloved childhood stories. While Marie is still involved, she was delighted her daughter decided to return home to help continue and grow the legacy of the Delaware Children’s Theatre.
Town Square Delaware: How did you start your career?
Donna Swajeski: I developed my basic love of drama and story-telling doing shows at Delaware Children’s Theatre with my mother, Marie Swajeski. She taught me how to direct. Having attended The Tatnall School, where a love of arts was fostered, I continued to hone my desire to pursue a career in the industry. I won a scholarship to Catholic University based on a children’s play I wrote. After college, I was fortunate to get a job in New York with ABC-TV as VP of Daytime Drama in charge of running the soap operas. From there, it was a natural transition to writing for the soaps, and soon I’d written for “Another World,” “Guiding Light,” “All My Children,” “Bold and the Beautiful,” and the “General Hospital” spin-off “Port Charles.”
TSD: What was it like to win an Emmy for Best Writing?
DS: It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment to stand on that Oscar stage and receive a standing ovation from my colleagues. I have written shows for all the major networks. While working on “Guiding Light ” for CBS, I came up with an idea to write a special Wednesday episode each week which was based on one character and would take us more into their life, off the story line. It was like writing a play a week. But I think it’s the reason I won. By the way, the Emmy is very, very heavy.
TSD: What are some of the memorable moments in the 40-year history of the Delaware Children’s Theatre? And do any DCT “students” perform professionally?
DS: To think of how much we have done over the last 40 years is really breathtaking. Notable moments:
- 1983 – when our theater house achieved historic status and was placed on the National Register
- My mother directed an original premiere of a Christmas play written by the suspense writer Mary Higgins Clark who was present at the opening
- My mother developed an in school touring group called the Rainbow Players, who also toured extensively hospitals and senior centers
- An early member of our advisory board was Joe Biden
- My mother has danced at the weddings of several people who met and married while doing shows with her
My mother also produced a play that I wrote with Disney composer Alan Mencken called “Rarin’ to Go” about good nutrition and one I wrote on patriot John Dickinson called “The Revolution Machine.” The hook with this play was that I used all original civil war music and all the lines Dickinson spoke were actual quotes.
Over the years, hundreds of talented young actors have appeared in DCT productions. Johnny Gallagher, Jr., is a Tony Award-winning actor who began his career as Tom Sawyer at the Delaware Children’s Theatre. He is on the HBO drama series “The Newsroom” and has also done several CSI shows. And critically acclaimed opera singer Jennifer Zetlan, who has appeared at the Met in New York, also performed at the DCT.
TSD: Tell us a little about the theatre itself.
DS: The DCT is a very special place. It possesses a long and rich theatrical history, which includes being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, the building which houses the DCT was built in 1893 by Minerva Parker Nichols, one of the first women architects, and stands as the only remaining example of a turn of the century Woman’s Club in the Northeast. My mother is an equally remarkable woman and for her to keep the DCT going for 40 years and counting is an accomplishment that is unmatched by any other local children’s theatre.
TSD: Can you give us a sense of what the next 40 years will look like?
: My brother David and I are taking the theatre forward under my mother’s guidance and looking to incorporate more mediums like film, art and writing. We’d like it to be a creative center. We’ll have our 6 shows a year, for adults and children, and we’re also going to bring in some celebrity-driven vehicles like one-man shows and special events. I’d like to bring some New York to Delaware from my own life and connections there. Meanwhile, I hope your readers will come see my own version of “Snow White
.” There’s a reggae wizard, talking foxes, and enchanted singing Princesses all wrapped around a very classic tale. We also invite children to come in their favorite costumes. There’s also a special Saturday night show April 27, where we invite all those with April or May birthdays to come and bring a party of friends. You’ll get a cast picture and we’ll sing to you on stage! The show runs April 13- May 5.
TSD: Why “Snow White?”
DS: I’ve always loved fairy tales. This story always appealed to me because it has a message that beauty is as beauty does. It’s about self image. The Queen, who in my story is a bit of a diva, is panicked about getting wrinkles and lives in perpetual fear that someone else is prettier than her. She is all about who she sees when she looks in the mirror. I think kids need a healthy dose of self esteem because we’ve sadly become a society obsessed with looks. This play shows that as long as you have good friends and treat others how you want to be treated, you are beautiful.