Friday, January 2, 2004

Wishing well: Runs wet and dry

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When making New Year’s wishes, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. Wishes, after all, don’t always come true. So if I did wish something, but the Great Wish-Granter in the Sky didn’t quite get to do the whole thing, would a small gesture at least be a push in the right direction?

It is in that spirit that I offer these wishes, requests to the Theater Deities in hopes that someone will take them up and make some progress, if not go all the way.

First off, I wish that more Mainers took the time to see the theater that surrounds them. Some of it is pure entertainment, and those theaters that focus on fun pack houses all the time.

But Mainers are a political bunch — at least if you believe the banter around diner counters and coffee-shop tables — and we could stand to have some of our ideas both illuminated and challenged. So if you’ve read this far, take $20 out of your next paycheck and go see a play. Not a musical — though they are fun! — but a spoken-word and physical-movement story performed live in front of your very eyes.

Not only will you enlighten yourself, but you’ll also help struggling "serious" theater companies around the state.

As a move toward further helping them, I wish for a greater spirit of collaboration between Maine’s theater companies, including not only administrators but directors and actors, too. There’s quite a bit of this already, and I have been watching with glee the recent discussions on a Maine theater email list about finding a space to store sets, props, and costumes, where anyone could come to borrow from what would effectively be a library of resources. It would prevent duplication of efforts, cut costs, and improve the quality of productions, as well as give everyone great ideas to build on.

I would also hope that theaters not just pick up the shows that were successful elsewhere in the area. I say to producers: If you want to bring a national show here, please do so. If you want to do it because it did so well up the road or down the coast, choose another, perhaps even a similar production. Help improve the diversity of theatrical offerings in Maine.

Aside from the obvious overabundance of A Christmas Carol performances, other shows seem to make the rounds of Maine playhouses. Everyone needs to make some money, but try doing it by being exciting and innovative, not by being copycats.

And now for some specific wishes:

• I wish for a full run of any play by Somali-born, Maine-dwelling playwright Omar Ahmed. It’s the next step, as Maine’s theater community explores issues its mainstream media won’t, including race, immigration, and discrimination.

• I wish for The Cast to begin to tell people when their shows are, in advance of opening night. They’re wonderful actors, and have wonderful lighting designers and stage managers as friends. They just need audiences to pay attention.

• I wish the Stage at Spring Point would put on a full run of an important show, and succeed at it. They figured out how to handle some of the bugs — quite literally — last summer. Let’s hope they continue to push their comfort zones and give a second effort to show their mettle. There’s potential there, which was misguided last time. Let it run free.

• I wish for Winter Harbor Theater Company to get its feet a bit more underneath them, and put on a full run of a play before the year is out. They cancelled one show, which had been scheduled for early in 2004, because they couldn’t get all the pieces together the way they wanted them. In keeping with the words of innovator Phil Daniels — "Reward excellent failures" — we applaud them for making a hard choice and not raising the curtain on something they thought wasn’t right. We hope they are able to get money, script, and actors together before the year is out, to continue their important, ground-breaking and status-quo-challenging work.

• I wish for the influences of theater centers from around the Northeast to bear fruit in Maine, as well as for Maine theaters to influence performance choices in other states. While there are too many wonderful New York theater companies to list (and some so small they must literally be stumbled upon in the streets), Long Wharf Theatre Company in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Vermont Theater Company in Dummerston, Vermont, both are in the midst of interesting seasons including wonderful shows Mainers would certainly enjoy. Among Long Wharf’s selection this season are The Syringa Tree (about black and white families handling the post-apartheid transition in South Africa), A New War (about news coverage of war), and The Story (about media coverage, privacy, and community life).

• Finally, I wish that I and all Maine theater-goers this year find our hearts aflutter, our bellies aching from laughs, our eyes wide, our fundamental beliefs in question, and our minds forced a bit more open, by performers on stages in or near our hometowns.