Thursday, January 2, 2003

Wish upon a stage . . . Theater-types speak up

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Maine’s theater directors and producers, full of hope and plans for the new year, are interested not only in the success of their own shows and venues, but also the arts in Maine more generally. New Year’s wishes don’t always come true, but they are worth noting.

But first, a note of a response to audience wishes: Portland Stage Company will open its first January show in several years, and has chosen to put on a second family production, Triple Espresso, to complement what is typically its only family show, A Christmas Carol.

Most of the year’s wishes, however, are not yet fulfilled.

David Greenham, producing director at the Theater at Monmouth, issued a specific challenge to the Portland Phoenix: “That those who are writing and reporting on the arts take more time to get to understand what’s behind some of the arts projects they see, specifically theater.”

By providing a venue for education of audiences and the public at large about what it takes to put together a live show, Greenham said, newspapers like this one can expand the impact of theater and open arts discussions to more people. He specifically suggests that reviewers, including me, talk to directors and producers to learn more about why a show was chosen and how it was constructed for its run in Maine. Expect to see efforts to grant his wish in this space, as the year progresses.

Other wishes are not so easily granted. David Mauriello, playwright and board member at the Players’ Ring in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has a simple one: “I wish more theater companies would work with playwrights on new plays.” His own company is doing just that, but he is right: Most theaters in Maine don’t showcase the work of the state’s strong set of writers, poets, and playwrights.

Portland Opera Repertory Theatre, through its public-relations expert Gillian Britt, has wishes both selfish and selfless. They want to be able to put on more productions throughout the year, including a full show during the fall or winter, and another during the summer festival, moving the company toward “a par with most leading summer opera festivals in the country,” Britt said.

That additional exposure would no doubt help them reach the goals they aim for in the community. PORT is looking for increasing funding for its educational and outreach programs, teaching children about opera and performing from an early age.

PORT is also looking to enrich other arts organizations in the region and throughout the state, hoping for increased collaborations with “groups such as the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Maine Humanities Council, Portland Public Library, the USM School of Music, and others,” Britt said.

Improved collaboration and cross-pollination could help non-musical groups as well: Two skilled companies working together on a production could bring audiences even richer performances and more layered experiences.

The Theater at Monmouth’s Greenham also has a wish for the people of Maine, that more of them “will discover the great theater that’s available to residents of Maine.” A wide range of theaters and companies are putting on “interesting, compelling, and entertaining works” that are better than the made-for-TV dramas broadcast in early-evening time slots. Most theater in Maine, Greenham said, “is in intimate and easy-to-get-to spaces” all over the state, not far from the comfy living-room couch.

And, he said, “the experience of seeing a live performance with a group of people around you is rich in its own way.” He has this hope for the locals: “My wish is that everyone in Maine goes to see a live theater performance during 2003. You won’t regret it.”

I will close with three wishes of my own. First, that theater companies across the state realize there are other holiday plays than A Christmas Carol. I urge them to explore the wonderful range of holidays in other cultures and traditions, as well as branching out even within the plays written by white men to, for example, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Second, that theater, at least in Maine if not elsewhere, shed its traditionally segregated mantle. I want to see more people of color on Maine stages, and more shows about the experiences of “other,” explorations of race, immigration, and cultural difference and confluence. Many ethic groups have been here for 20 years or more, and yet they find little room for their own performances, which would no doubt enthrall white audiences as much as any Tom Stoppard or Eugene O’Neill script.

ýhich blends easily into my third wish for the people of Androscoggin County to see that extending a welcome to people of all cultures remains part of what makes life in Maine “the way life should be.” Let’s see Lewiston/Auburn Arts put on a show based on the experiences of Somalis, whether in their own country, refugee camps, or after arriving in the US. Theater, culture, and politics do intersect, and, in Lewiston, as well as throughout Maine, it is time for the arts to be heard.

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