The year 2001 was "a brutal, brutal year" for Mike Levine. The Oak Street Theater — for six years his project — had just closed. He then worked with Deirdre Nice and others planning the restoration of the St. Lawrence Church into an arts and community center. But construction ran late, forcing the postponement of the center’s long-awaited first show.
And tragedy struck at home. Mike and his wife lost a baby. He took time off, closing Acorn, a production company that had put on must-see shows in Portland in the mid to late 1990s. He almost brought Avner ("the Eccentric") Eisenberg and company back for a Phyzgig reprise in late 2001, but September 11 put a stop to that. He took time to think, reflect, heal, grow.
Levine and his wife now have a second baby, and though she was three months premature and spent six months in the hospital, she’s healthy and home. And with some real-life dramatic experience under his belt, Levine, a high school theater teacher in Sacopee Valley, is finding the Acorn he stashed two and a half years ago.
"It’s nice to be able to pick up old connections," he says. Portland hasn’t forgotten him: A fund-raising letter sent out in the early fall netted some encouraging donations, and a $5000 grant from the Davis Family Foundation. It was enough to put on a few performances of Phyzgig in December and plan a third Maine Playwrights Festival, on this weekend at the Portland Stage Studio Theater.
It has also started a new chapter for Acorn. "Right now I’m trying to be financially responsible," Levine says. When at Oak Street, the conflict between the artistic half of his mind and the accountant half was no contest: The theater put on "very nice productions of stuff that would lose tons of money." This time, with a new perspective, he’s changed his tune. "We want to make this a stable venture," ideally self-sustaining, without needing grants and donations, except to expand and innovate.
"Otherwise you’re on the edge of death," he says. Without financial support "you’re just building a house of cards."
He has retooled Acorn to meet a need he sees in the community, one others have also seen. "We’re sort of looking more to Acorn as a catalyst for new work," dreaming of using the Portland Stage space — both main stage and studio — to showcase new work, workshop plays in progress, and expose directors, actors, and audiences to the living art of theater.
He is focusing more on the logistics end of things than creativity, preferring to avoid that artist-accountant dispute of past years. "If I want to direct a play, I should job myself out," he says. He is directing some of the work in this festival, but swears that’s it for his artistic involvement with Acorn.
This production sprang from work Suze Allen, of the Amma Performing Arts Studio (the studio Acorn morphed into in Levine’s absence, now a separate enterprise), did with local playwrights and short pieces. "These plays are written specifically for this event," Levine says. The plays were not chosen by competition, but that’s in the cards for the future.
The closeness of the playwrights to the process has allowed a degree of artistic give-and-take rarely found in theater, Levine says. Directors can ask the playwrights what their intentions were, and for background information on characters.
"I love these kind of short plays," he says. "They’re short but they have a complete dramatic arc." The performances can begin with more intensity, because they lack time to develop their own moods.
"The first time the characters see each other you not only want to, but you have to establish a clear connection."
Among the plays are stories of a man who, after 34 years or marriage, plugs his ears with wax and finds he has never been happier; eggs who decide to seek their own sperm donors; and couples who face a wide range of challenges in life.
"There are no subtleties," Levine says. As a director, "you can make these sort of extreme choices."
They’re also less demanding of time and energy — and money. The previous two festivals Acorn put on were for full-length plays, where 50 submissions came in and three were selected and performed in full. "That was really, really hard."
Shorter plays may draw more people, Levine hopes. "There’s something about theatergoers’ attention span that’s reflecting what’s going on" in the wider world. The first question most people ask about plays is not, "What is it about," but "How long is it?"
He’s hoping brevity, intensity and variety will draw "the ever-elusive 28-to-34 demographic" into the seats.
The future of Acorn is a bit uncertain. With no long-range plan, "in a sense we are almost like a new company." He’s enjoying the freedom of not having a theater building’s overhead, while at the same time being "a little worried about becoming a gypsy company."
"This is kind of an experimental year for me," he says.
Maine Playwrights Festival
Eleven plays by nine local playwrights, performed by 17 actors, with three directors. Acorn Productions at the Portland Stage Studio Theater, Jan. 29 through Feb. 1. Call (207) 766-3386.