January 19

Southern Maine’s theaters solving their space problems

New theater companies mean more stages in Portland and across the region.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

If he had his druthers, Keith Powell Beyland would control his own theater space. But Beyland, artistic director for Portland’s Dramatic Repertory Company, doesn’t have that luxury.

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The cast and crew of the play “Vigils” set up prior to a rehearsal at Mad Horse Theater in South Portland. Mad Horse converted the space after Portland’s Lucid Theater went under.

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A theater patron climbs the stairs to Portland Stage Company’s 75-seat Studio Theater. The company’s production manager, Andrew Harris, says his immediate task in 2014 is trying to accommodate all the directors who want to book the theater.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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A small troupe that presents a handful of edgy dramas each year, Dramatic Repertory balances its ambition with the complexities of the city’s evolving theater scene, which is in the midst of an upheaval. New companies are starting out and stages are popping up in residential neighborhoods, industrial corridors and commercial strips on the peninsula and across the city, and in the suburbs from South Portland to Freeport.

The Footlights opened a 70-seat theater in Falmouth last fall. Theater of the Awesome recently opened in Freeport. The Westbrook Performing Arts Center at the city’s middle school is luring dance productions to town. South Portland is fast becoming a destination for drama with three companies operating just over the Casco Bay Bridge.

The activity represents a creative burst among actors, dancers, directors, choreographers and playwrights, who have more opportunity to create but also more competition at the box office and more demand for space, dates and talent.

In November, Beyland and Rob Cameron of Fenix Theatre Company teamed to present “A Bright New Boise,” the first play in the new performance space at Portland Ballet, a flexible 73-seat theater on Forest Avenue, adjacent to Portland Ballet’s studio. In March, Beyland will mount “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” in the Studio Theater at Portland Stage Company, with seating for about 75, and in May he’s back at Portland Ballet with “Equivocation.”

All are serious dramas, which until a few years ago rarely played outside big cities or north of Boston. “A Bright New Boise” is about a father’s attempted reconciliation with a son he gave up long ago; “Rachel Corrie” is a true story about a U.S. student killed during protests in the Gaza Strip, and “Equivocation” is about telling the truth.

“How is it working out?” Beyland asks. “That’s a question I can answer somewhere around June. Of course, I would prefer having my own personal space. It’s easier for people to remember.”

On the other hand, Dramatic Repertory has the ability to tailor its shows to the available space. “I feel like I have options, which is always good. I’m not tied down,” he said.

The recent bubble of activity traces back to the closing of Lucid Stage on Baxter Boulevard in the fall of 2012. Lucid did not produce its own shows but for two years provided a 75-seat performance space to many fledgling and established theater companies. It was built with theater as its top priority, giving directors and actors not only a dedicated space that accommodated their need for flexibility, but also long-term bookings that encouraged them to develop an audience via word-of-mouth and repeat performances.

Lucid proved to be an incubator for the arts. Its closing, because of financial difficulties, left the companies that it helped birth scrambling for space. The result of that scramble is the new theater at Portland Ballet, a permanent home for Mad Horse in a former school in South Portland, and pop-up stages in unlikely places, like Urban Farm Fermentory, which makes cider, meads and other drinks on Anderson Street in East Bayside. The drink factory hosted two weekends of plays by Lorem Ipsum in November.

With all the activity, Portland may be at the leading edge of the bubble. This month the St. Lawrence Arts Center on Munjoy Hill will formalize plans for a new 400-seat theater and the expansion of its 110-seat Parish Hall theater by 15 or 20 seats.

And at Portland Stage, one of production manager Andrew Harris’ immediate tasks in 2014 is figuring out how to accommodate all the directors who want to book the theater’s 75-seat Studio Theater.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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The Portland Ballet troupe rehearses in its new 73-seat theater in what used to be office space in an adjacent building on Forest Avenue.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


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