Coming Home: An Interview With the new Artistic Director of Upper Darby Summer Stage, Chris Luner

Upper Darby Summer Stage is proud to announce Chris Luner as our new Artistic Director following 46 years of Harry Dietzler at the helm. Chris comes to us with a variety of professional theatrical experience both on and off-Broadway. 

Born and raised in Upper Darby, Chris was a frequent Summer Stage participant and regular staff member for nearly a decade. After graduating from Upper Darby High School, Chris studied Arts Administration at Wagner College  in Staten Island, NY. Chris is coming home to fulfill his lifelong dream of running Upper Darby Summer Stage, after years of honing his theatrical knowledge through acting, managing on-stage productions, and even producing an independent film. 

We sat down with Chris to get in-depth about his background in the arts and his vision for our beloved summer theatre program. 

Q: How were you introduced to theatre and performance? 

A: I first experienced Summer Stage as an audience member. In middle school I attended a YMCA camp, and one day we went to see a Summer Stage show, “The Adventures of Young King Arthur,” which I believe was in 2002. I remember seeing the show, loving it, and being fascinated with it. I ended up getting involved with theater at the middle school and joined Children’s Theater at Summer Stage in 2005. During this time I continued to participate in shows at UDHS in different capacities, even stage managing one of the fall plays. I always loved theater, but I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do with it. All I knew was that I loved what Harry did so I actually went to him and asked, “I want to do what you do, so how do I do it?” He encouraged me to look into Arts Administration and helped to guide me in figuring out which schools [colleges] have those programs. I ended up at Wagner because I wanted to go to New York City since I think it’s one of the best places to do theater. I’ve been there ever since, working in a wide variety of roles from general management, company manager, stage manager, and now primarily a production manager. As such, I work to bring all the moving parts of a show together and make sure it all works as one piece. 

I also worked with some friends and former Summer Stagers to create an indie feature film called Ranch Water during the pandemic. We had this desire to create something with one another, and it really was a cathartic experience to create in the midst of this time where the world was telling us that we couldn’t create or tell stories.

Q: Is there any specific moment in time when you realized this is what you wanted to pursue?

A: There actually is, it was when I was in Shooting Stars. We were doing Star for a Day and we were teaching the kids how to dance, sing, and put a show together. I remember doing that and thinking “I love this. I love working with kids, creating theater, and building a show from scratch.” I think that’s how I ended up where I did. I’ve always loved the details of things and how they all work together, so I shouldn’t be surprised that I ended up in Production Management.

Q: How have the arts impacted your life?

A: I’ve always been drawn to the arts in a way, growing up around music and playing an instrument when I was younger. Even when I was in middle school, I remember my dream job was producing music videos because I loved the notion of taking a song and creating a world with it. I always participated in choir and played sports growing up, but once I got into theater, I was all in. I think that has driven a lot of not only who I am but who I want to be. Even in the past few years, I’ve spent time talking with representative leaders and organizations to get legislation passed to support the arts, such as the Save Our Stages bill. I love the solar system analogy I heard from Be An Arts Hero, which is picturing a community as a solar system with the performing arts as the sun at the center. Everything else feeds off that: the hotels get booked, the restaurants are full, and transportation is thriving because of people drawn in by the shows. It’s even true in our own area, where McDonald’s, Civera’s, Casey’s, and other places get tons of business during the summer from people coming to see the shows. So much of what happens in our community is driven by what is happening within the arts. Human beings are meant to be together, to share stories and breathe together, to learn about themselves and others, and theater does all that.

Q: Favorite production you’ve worked on in NYC?

A: I don’t know if I have an absolute favorite, but one that comes to mind is when I was working on the West Side Story revival just before the pandemic. We started in October 2019 and the show ended up closing because of the pandemic, but there were so many things about it that made it so special. One of course is the fact that West Side Story is an iconic show in American musical theatre. Another is that it’s a New York Story, and even the score feels like the soundtrack of New York City. There aren’t many moments when you work in the arts when you think to yourself,  “I made it,” but there were several nights that I spent in the orchestra pit with a 28-piece orchestra playing Leonard Bernstein’s incredible score with Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics on Broadway and thought to myself, “Wow, this is as good as it gets.” The show also stood out to me because they switched up certain aspects of the play, including having both the Jets and the Sharks be very diverse as opposed to two clear groups going against one another. You had to look at the show and wonder who was battling who and realize that even though we all look like we’re battling each other, we’re all working for the same thing. Combined with only a few tech elements, it really pushed the borders of theatre and what can be theatrical. Some people might ask why we should go to the theater, but I think it’s about pushing the boundaries and living in a moment together.

Q: What is your vision for Summer Stage?

A: It’s in part a vision for Summer Stage but also in part a vision for Upper Darby. How exciting is it that when Upper Darby is referenced, two arts organizations come to mind? One is the Tower Theater, an iconic music venue known nationwide, and the second is Upper Darby Summer Stage, one of the nation’s best youth theatre programs. It’s what we’re known for. Upper Darby has the opportunity to be this arts capital not only for the Philly region but for all of PA. I think Summer Stage has a beautiful opportunity by moving under the Foundation. We are lucky not only to do what we know, but to move into the unknown by making sure our summer program offers as many opportunities as possible and expanding arts programming into the community year-round. Bringing theatre to the people is what Summer Stage has always done and we only need to take that to the next level. I look forward to tapping into telling stories from all the different worlds people come from, and I want to ensure that those opportunities are made readily available. Seeing yourself represented on stage or on the creative team allows people the opportunity to know that there is always more. We need stories like that, and organizations doing the work to put and see different stories and communities on stage is extremely important.

Q: How does being a part of the non-profit UDAEF help that vision come into focus for you and for the program?

A: It’s exciting not to be as limited and tied directly to a venue. Obviously, the PAC is our home and we are so lucky to continue using it as a facility, but I think there’s a real opportunity here to be able to bring theatre to the people. We have an exciting opportunity to not only bring theatre into the community where the people are, but to reach them through advances made during the pandemic such as streaming and video production. It might not seem like much but being able to offer a virtual audience a performance that happened days or weeks before is an exciting moment of accessibility for theatreWe can now work with the possibilities of not only taking theatre out into the community but also those of streaming and video production, among others. I also think that by Summer Stage moving under UDAEF’s leadership, we can be eligible for more funding and support from not only the state and local level, but also nationally. This will only open up more arts education opportunities for students throughout the Philadelphia region, which is ultimately the number one goal at the end of the day. Summer Stage has never been a place to create Broadway stars; our mission is teaching participants good life skills through putting together a show. Especially coming out of Covid, teamwork and collaboration in a world of independence and isolation are arguably more important than ever before. We need to reinvest not only in our audiences and our community but also in our participants and staff, not take things for granted, and cultivate a community that takes care of one another. We want to make sure that Summer Stage takes care of Upper Darby because this is not only our home, but it really is where we want to be.

Q: What does “brave, strong, and true” mean to you?

A: What I love about that phrase is that it has the ability to mean something different and important to anything our participants might need or are looking for. I think Brave is tied to bravery to show up and do the work. Showing up can be really hard these days, not just for ourselves but for our communities as well. Strong leans into the strength that it takes to not only perform the shows but work together. We are stronger when we work together. Our casts and technicians manage to do that week after week and make it look easy.  That also ties itself to True, which is about being true to yourself and sharing the magic that you have within yourself with others. What’s so beautiful at Summer Stage is that people show up as who they are, bring everything to the table, and stay true to themselves in the process of  tapping into their own  potential. That is the magic of Summer Stage and it begins with each of us individually. 

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