4: The Arts are Basic to Life

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Quinn: How does a theater company go from a stage full of forty people to a stage of just three, and what happen next? This is episode 4, and the conclusion of, Setting the Stage. If you haven’t heard the first 3 episodes, I recommend listening to them first. In episode 3, we talked about how Cornerstone Theater and the Eastport community produced an enormous show called Pier Gynt, which led to Eastport founding Stage East after Cornerstone left. I talked to Jay Skriletz, who came to Eastport with Cornerstone but stayed behind after they left, about the process of getting Stage East off the ground.

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Jay: They left behind the theater with a minimal amount of lighting in it. I had helped Cornerstone–I knew where to buy used lighting and used dimming equipment, and stuff like that, I knew where to–so there was a nice little space. I put in a production, just as sort of a ground zero test. We did Waiting for Godot. Didn’t advertise it, and we found out, probably pretty obvious, people won’t just come because it’s Stage East in Eastport. There was no automatic audience from Pier Gynt. So then we did Playboy of the Western World, a real play. Local gentleman who had some theater experience and movie experience directed it. Added some music to it, and that was a success. The next show we did, we brought James Bundy back. And we brought him back to direct Fools, which was the first show that was actually done in the first space, because it was springtime and heating wasn’t an issue. And that sort of set the pattern. We did that in six weeks and it was quite successful, good performances. I think it became, it was always clear to me, but I think we all began to think that Stage East could grow better if it was dedicated to its audience rather than entertaining itself.

Quinn: Stage East continued to be successful for quite some time. They were also closely connected to the Eastport Art Center, first through the physical space that they both shared, as Lou Esposito described:

Lou: Well again the momentum was there, the cast was big, they used a lot of local people, the energy was there, they–I think they left the town like 500 dollars as sort of seed money to get going. And so an organizational meeting was held—I was actually there—to form what would be the ongoing production company that didn’t have a name at the time. Jay was there, of course. They did have, this was kind of cool—where Donny Sutherland had his pottery shop, the gallery had their space there and when you went to a play you actually walked through the gallery into the backdoor of the theater space. So it was a really nice experience for the audience. There was this sort of connection by space but not any kind of formal organization relationship. 

Quinn: Stage East then quickly became a constituent organization underneath the umbrella of the Eastport Art Center, a process that was overseen by Joyce Weber.

Joyce: We were called the Eastport Gallery and Art Center at the time. So that board met and decided we needed to establish a board just for the theater. So we named the theater Stage East and had our first organizational meeting that fall around October. We had some good advisors along the way, and that’s how it got started. It was a lot of work to do in the Masonic Hall, and we had a lot of volunteers. And we did come up with some money. There was a fellow, James… I’m sorry, I can’t remember his last name. I was standing in the space over there, and it was in shambles. We were planning to do their performance. And they had left, and left it with some bleachers I was standing there looking around and thinking how could we ever make a theater out of this? Because we had no money. And then wonderful fellow came walking up the stairs, and Jim said this is really interesting, tell me about it. And I said I was just standing there thinking about how will we ever come up with the money to turn this into a real, real theater? And he opened up his pocket and gave me a thousand dollars. It was so sweet of him! He said I believe you can do this, and I’d be glad to help you out.

Quinn: However, performing in the Masonic Hall couldn’t last forever. Stage East eventually needed a new home that was larger and better fit the needs of a theater. Jean Wilhelm oversaw the transition from the former Masonic Hall to the former Baptist Church.

Jean: The guy that owned the brick building wanted to sell it, and we needed more space desperately anyway. And at that moment, the Baptist Church came up for sale because somebody had died and left them enough building that they could build a new little church they have out there. So presto bingo, everything began falling together, it was so miraculous. So David and I shook hands and came up with enough money to buy the Baptist Church, and I designed the theater and all that, and went down to Yale…. And thanks to my good friend Vicky Nolan down there, had a grand consultation with their technical director because I’ve never had to do anything as technical as all those pipes and things they have up there, and gave us all sorts of advice and people that we hired to come up and put all that stuff in, it was an enormous undertaking it really was. But it was a happy time. Somehow it all came together.

Quinn: But not everything was smooth sailing. In the years following the initial founding of Stage East, Jay stayed as the primary director and teacher who guided the young theater group to professionalism and success. But his vision for Stage East ran in conflict with the rest of the board, so he eventually exited from his leadership position and focused on theater elsewhere. That’s about the time when Brian Schuth stumbled into the company.

Brian: So I got involved with Stage East… I didn’t really mean to. I first learned about Stage East—so in 1996, my wife and I were living outside Boston, we both met each other—I had just graduated from college, she was almost done with music school. And we got married, had kids right away, and we were living in Newton outside of Boston and couldn’t afford it anymore. And came here, and was kind of taken with the idea of being on the edge of nowhere. And it’s a beautiful place. Although we came down through Clark Street with mobile homes and everything, it wasn’t the most attractive thing, but I thought it was cool. And then that—I came back about a month later I think, actually thinking maybe I’ll look for a house, and there happened to be a play going on downtown, which kind of blew me away. That was—of all the romantic various ideas I had about living in this tiny little town, one of them was not that there would be a theater going on. And that was when I started thinking “yeah, maybe this’ll be an interesting place to live.” That following winter, the Bob Cratchit quit during A Christmas Carol and my wife had been asked to play music there, so she volunteered me to be Bob Cratchit. And then after that it was just like this falling downhill almost sort of thing. So I’m Bob Cratchit, after my third performance someone asked me if I might consider being on the board and I say yes. My first board meeting, somebody said “have you ever considered directing a play?” I said “not really, but maybe, I suppose.” So they said pick a play. So that fall I was directing The Tempest. And I forget when I actually became president, but at some point I became president and the rest is and remains history.

Quinn: Brian has been heavily involved with Stage East for decades, serving as the president and primary director for most of that time. He’s overseen great successes, but in recent years, no one has been able to stop the decline of Stage East.

Brian: So from the first time I got here–well let’s put it this way. I got asked to be in a play. Cold. No auditions or anything, it was already in rehearsal. And it wasn’t a small part. So they were already looking for people. Now there were a lot of people in that play though, there were probably twenty people in that show. And then I got asked to be on the board, so again, it’s not like there was a waiting list. And then I got asked to direct. The great thing about being out here is if you have an idea, and get some people to do it with you, nothing stands in your way. The flip side of that is, the reason for that is there’s often a gap here and there. There’s just only so many people out here. It takes time and effort to put on a play. More than most people realize, I think. And we’re living in a time where–it’s kind of funny, Eastport, when I first moved to Eastport, the downtown was all boarded up, I remember walking there about nine months after we were here in the winter thinking “what have I done?” And it looks beautiful since then. But the core of the community gets smaller, older. And we see that directly related in, you know, as I run through my head of all the people who were directly involved in the first two years… half of them are dead, and the other half left. Just year by year, the company got smaller. And that led to disagreements about how to deal with that. You had me coming in, who was kind of discovering he loved theater, and kind of got drawn to–not necessarily the most crowd-pleasing material. But the stuff I thought would be most interesting to do. And I had the energy to do it. And that would sometimes would lead to conflict about what we would do or why we would choose to do that we were doing. But it really wasn’t so much conflict after awhile, it just became sort of burnout. In the space of ten years, I went from not having done anything since fifth grade to producing, acting, and directing in forty shows. Now I was an outlier, but there were plenty of people who were putting in other significant amounts of time, and I think we all kind of blew up at the same time. And one thing Cornerstone had–so the Cornerstone myth is inspiring, but it’s also kind of annoying some of the time. Because one thing Cornerstone had was a core of dedicated, talented, educated people whose only goal was to make theater happen in this place. And nobody has ever had that combination coming here. There are people with lots of energy, some people know what they’re doing and some people don’t but are willing to learn, but none of us have that focus. And I think as time has gone by, it’s made it hard to continue to build the group, to get people excited to be part of it. And as that happens it begins to take on an identity a little bit apart from the community.

Quinn: Ann Skriletz, who has been involved in Stage East and also used to run the theater program at a local high school, had some thoughts about the downturn.

Ann: Yeah things seem to go in fits and starts with theater programs. Certainly that was our experience at the high school. We had huge shows, we did the Wizard of Oz, we did Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, we did the Fantasticks out there as well, we did Our Town. We did lots of big shows and then we would have some shrinkage, we’d have two or three kids who’d want to do a show the next time. And it was like that at Stage East as well. Sometimes it’s just sheer force of will. If you have people falling out of a show or whatever, you sometimes do whatever you have to do to get a show on the stage because you’ve already sold your tickets and your advertising and all that. There were a couple times that we ended up doing a show that we didn’t intend to act in. We picked a show that we could just go out and do it ourselves.

Quinn: So where is Stage East going now? Although things look bleak at the moment, there’s a lot of hope for the future. Chris Grannis, director of the Eastport Art Center, commented on the current difficulties.

Chris: Stage East has been struggling for the past couple years to get enough people to put on a show. Whether it’s timing in people’s lives or the inspiration of the people in charge, or the director… somebody can come in with a lot of energy and whip up a show and it will be great, and sometimes it just doesn’t get the people involved and it’s hard to figure out why. People’s summers are very busy and there always seems to be a reason. But they don’t want to go away and we don’t want to go away, so we keep inciting shows. We keep trying, and there’s intention to keep going.

Quinn: One major part of how they keep going is by being a part of the Eastport Art Center, which is absolutely thriving, with a yearlong calendar of arts performances, galleries, and workshops.

Chris: The Art Center is 7 constituent organizations under their umbrella. Three of them have their own 501c3s. So there’s an orchestra, the Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra, there’s Stage East, and there’s Northern Lights Film Society. They’re all separate 501c3s. And then there’s the concert series, Eastport Gallery downtown, Eastport Strings, and Quoddy Voices. I think that’s seven. We help all these organizations do their thing in the arts. So we provide event space, we provide places to rehearse, advertising, insurance, just general support. And we invite artists from the community to express themselves here in many ways. There’s been shows come out of dancers in the community, artists who have only ever shown their artwork in their house have had shows here, so sky’s the limit really. We had hired an education and outreach coordinator to help with reaching out into the community educationally and other community organizations. She started doing— is Alison Brennan, retired music teacher from Calais, and she started our workshop program. So she puts on plans… probably six workshops a summer and several during the winter.

Alison: I work with area schools and I also plan and organize all the workshops that we have here. The workshops are either visual arts or music workshops. I also organize and work at the arts camps that we have for children. And for outreach, outreach at our center is really for all ages, from the earlier Kinderarts experiences to going to assisted living centers. And we have, some of our constituent groups have gone to the assisted living centers. Quoddy Voices and ensembles from the Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra. We do have different people because, I think because the workshops are so varied, it attracts people from as far away as St. Andrews, New Brunswick to Jonesport, we’ve had people. Sometimes something just kind of clicks and they decide they want to travel all this way for a workshop. We even had one lady come from Bar Harbor once.

Quinn: So if the Art Center is doing so well, attracting people from hours away to take part in it, what will it take for Stage East to revitalize itself? Lou talked about keeping standards high, even with fewer people on board.

Lou: One thing they’ve always done from the earliest days, and again credit to Jay, is they’ve always set the bar pretty high. Even though we’re amateurs, it wasn’t amateurish. That was always important to me and so I hope they can maintain that, whatever direction it goes from here. I’d rather they just stop for awhile than do something that’s not very good. It’s always been sort of my mantra. Don’t just do it. I’ve talked to board members and they’ll bounce things off me because I’ve been around a long time doing this. Part of the allure of it is that they know–when I did a play with Jay, I knew you might not like the material, but it would be a good play. He put up a good quality product, same with Brian, and others. I’m pretty proud of these shows, I’ve directed a handful of shows myself, and I’ve seen some professional productions on some of the same plays I’ve done, and I feel like we’ve held our own and that’s important to me. If the thing is going to continue, and have the audience support, community support, advertisers and things, they need to stand for something. Better to take a break and gear up and do something good than just to throw something together just to say they’ve done a show.

Quinn: Jean, as well as many other community members, is motivated by the idea of recruiting young people to make theater in Eastport.

Jean: But the thing I want to point out is we have forty eight, well fifty states. I think I can fairly say that there are at least two theaters in every single one of these states. And numerous training places. I mean every university just automatically has theater training now. All of these people are just pouring out, and what do they do? I just think it should be no problem at all to find a new director who’s coming out of one of those programs who doesn’t want to go to Broadway. I mean good lord, I worked in Broadway for awhile before it got so noisy and full, and I just wasn’t going to do it. It’s a horrible place. And we have something else to offer, and wonderful training in the process of working here. We’re going through a little switch about this. More young people are coming back. If they could come back to a job in the theater, I’m not the only person who never wanted to work in New York.

Quinn: Everyone knows that Stage East has the space and the resources, it’s just about getting more people passionate and involved. And there is hope that things might be turning around.

Brian: Things are rough all over and I’m just trying to feel like if we can keep ourselves going, get a couple of shows up a year, maybe the tide will turn. We just have to wait and see. Actually, the fact that these people in Canada want to be in here, that’s a good sign. The fact that I know there are people in Machias who are young. And I mean really young, not like Washington County young, 40. People in their 20s want to be putting theater together makes me think, if we can just sort of, it’s our job right now to stay afloat, to keep some money in the bank, to make sure we continue to have this venue–really the only decent theatrical venue in Washington County–going, and we’ll see where we end up.

Quinn: Right now Stage East is small, but it’s surviving. They don’t have the numbers to put on a big show, so instead they put on a three-person Neil Simon play called “You Ought to Be on Pictures” and attracted a large audience all the same. There is so much love for Stage East, even when not a lot is happening. People still know and love their roots in the Pier Gynt production, and are deeply proud of everything they’ve achieved since then. That idea is exemplified through the archival work that’s being done to preserve recordings of the original Pier Gynt production. I spoke to Meg McGarvey, who spearheaded the archival efforts.

Meg: Pier Gynt just was such an amazing occurrence, a happening to come to the community. And I learned some more about it later when I was, I think her name was Pat Donnelly, because I had the knowledge that they had filmed some of the performances. So I communicated with her and I think there another woman at Stage East—I mean Cornerstone. Just looking at it later through the archives they found a total of 14 DVDs that they had taken, filmed three performances and each performance from three angles. So this was a treasure of all this film. So I had a friend who was the president of the New England School of Communications over in Bangor, Tom Johnston, and so it was through him that–and they trusted me, they sent the box with all the tapes in it–and I turned it over to Tom, and he had, I think it was a graduate student who digitized the tapes. I think at that point they were 23 years old, and I guess at 25 years that’s when the tapes can start to really disintegrate. So they were good enough to digitize, and then we sent the tapes back to Cornerstone along with a CD or DVD of everything. And that was their only request, that they have a copy of the digitized version. They didn’t want any copyright or any royalties if we happened to do something with it. I thought they were just so cooperative, and they were so happy to have it in a digitized form. So that took years of trying to convince people that there had been films, and to reach that point where it was a reality and then Alberta Hunter kind of spearheaded the 25th anniversary celebration, and they took clips–the films, they were just more record shots, they weren’t all set up with individual microphones and all. So it could be blurry and the sound was–you couldn’t understand some of them, but just to see these people. There was a woman, Deanna Francis, who played Pier Gynt’s mother I think, and a Passamaquoddy woman, and she passed away a number of years ago, so to see her on stage–and I talked to one of her sisters who came to see that show, and it was so moving to make those connections. I guess they had the biggest turn out for the Pier Gynt casting, I think they told me they had 135 turn out, one of the biggest casting calls they had ever had. I think this was the last of this kind of production they did. I’ve seen some of the other people who were in the cast back then, so it really marked a gathering point in the community where the arts started to really take hold.

Quinn: It’s hard to say what the future holds for Stage East. But for the Eastport Art Center, the future is undoubtedly bright. And I personally have faith that when something is supported by a thriving community organization, it has the foundation to come back around with that institutional support.

Brian: I’d like to think the trend is good. Not so much in Eastport right now, but in Machias there are a bunch of younger people who want to be doing theater, who are talking to me about what we can do. There’s a company in St. Andrews who’s gonna try to tour over here if we can’t at this moment in time necessarily have a core that can put on a bunch of shows, at least we still exist. Because of Stage East, the Eastport Art Center has the building it has right now. The Eastport Art Center before mostly used to be just a way to have insurance for the gallery, and they rented a building, and this leap to go to the building would not have happened if we hadn’t been there.

Quinn: Even though growth is slow, there are active community recruitment efforts happening for Stage East.

Chris: Stage East did a play reading once a month in the winter months to try to get people past the door and on the stage just reading with the script in front of them. That seems to be a good way to get some people warmed to the idea of being on stage. So that’s worked a little bit but nobody’s really stuck, and they didn’t come to auditions. Well we’re trying our hardest to entice young people. We’ve heard several people move to Eastport and say they want to get involved in the Art Center, and indeed they have. We have new people all the time coming in here wanting to be involved. Stage East is wanting to get fresh out of college or university people that want to try their feet. Maybe they have a play in mind and they want to come and do an internship here and incite theater to happen, and use that energy to get more people in.

Quinn: Also, even though the Art Center is doing well, they’re still focused on bringing in more people, to Stage East and to the arts in general. 

Greg: Yeah, well we’re–one of the things that we have not been good at, but we’re getting better at, is keeping some kind of statistics about how many people we draw because our funders want to hear that. We want to also keep track. On a yearly basis, more than 5000 people come in the Art Center. Considerably more than 5000, probably more than 6000 now. And so you know, in a community of 1300 people, that’s a good number. We do wrestle with the fact that there are people who live in Washington County who have dimly heard of the Art Center but have never walked in our doors, and we want to do that without altering our standards or our mission in any way, but we want to encourage them to attend and that’s one of our goals.

Quinn: A lot of people also expressed to me a desire to bring in more people from Pleasant Point specifically. I talked to Barb about the involvement of the residents of Pleasant Point in Stage  East, and how much they continued to be involved in the Eastport arts community after Pier Gynt.

Barb: Certainly not to the extent that they did for Cornerstone. There were probably some people who appeared in productions, but I have to honestly say that we were not able to get the, as much representation there. Although they have, Pleasant Point folks have been involved in a lot of the Art Center activities, coming in and discussing their arts, or making their music, and telling stories.

Quinn: It would be great to say that Cornerstone Theater came to Eastport, bridged two communities, and left a highly successful theater company in its wake. Right now, we can’t say that. But we can say that Pier Gynt started a legacy of theater that’s continued for three decades, even if its numbers are a little questionable right now. We can say it created friendships and relationships across people who would not have known each other otherwise, and tied the artistic history of the two towns together.  And just as Stage East continues to create theater, it continues to improve and reach out to the Pleasant Point community. In 2017, visiting fellow Naphtali Fields produced August: Osage County to great success, and brought in involvement from members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe. This isn’t a clean story with a perfectly tied up happy ending. But it is a true story, of people who are trying to create art, and share that art with the community they love.

Quinn: And what’s happened with Cornerstone in the last 30 years? They moved to Los Angeles and they continue their community-based theater work to this day. Cornerstone members have done some extraordinary things in and out of the company. But as excellent as Cornerstone is, this is not a podcast about Cornerstone. It’s a podcast about a rural island town and community theater. Too often, community theater is seen as synonymous with bad theater. But as Lou put it earlier, just because they’re amateurs doesn’t mean they’re amateurish. Community theater can be smart, and well-produced, and powerful. And even if it wasn’t, it would still be important.

Jay: I think every theater should have a theater, every town needs a theater, every town needs a place to talk about stuff in a meaningful way. And I think theater’s probably the most meaningful way to talk about stuff.

Lou: It certainly has been a hugely satisfying thing in my life for all these years. I can’t imagine life without it.

Jean: I think theater is one of the basic arts, and partly because it encompasses all the arts. One way or another it does. It’s such a rich exposition of humanity. Sometimes it’s just fun, ha ha ha, but I think that’s a lesser variety of theater, but that’s one of the great things about theater–it comes in so many forms and shapes and taken all together it really provides quite a view of the world and life. It’s a fantastic art. Once you get involved with it, it becomes an enormous joy to be part of it and participating in all these sides of the world.

James: There are a couple of essential challenges to being human. One of them is we can all see each other and inappropriate circumstances, touch each other. We are all real to each other and we all recognize each other’s reality. And at the same time we’re all abstract and mysterious to each other because none of us can ever fully know ourselves or the people around us. And so the theater seems to me to be a place where we get to embody that reality and abstraction and come to grips with it and find consolations and joys in that problem. Whether comic or tragic. But it’s an art form that requires us all to embrace our humanity and share it with each other in real time. And that’s what makes it miraculous, right? And why it will never go away.

Quinn: More than anything, the arts are important to this town. To these people. Towards shaping the culture and community of the place they live, towards convincing the young people born here that it’s worth it to stay, towards keeping the arts alive in this rural town on the edge of the Earth.

Joyce: I think for starters it has drawn a lot of people here. There were artists sprinkled around everywhere here, out in the country, they weren’t organized or anything. And like I said a few of us artists got together and organized the gallery, that’s how we started getting organized. But once we moved into the Masonic Hall we were very visible, and we were making a difference in the town… And it’s established a certain reputation and a space in which art efforts can thrive. Because everything we did was beginning. Everything was new. 

Greg: I think the arts are basic to life. We’re not the only art source in Washington County, but we’re a major one. We all feel that the arts should be made available to people, even in small rural areas. We try to do that. Because we think it’s–I mean I do it because I want to see this stuff, I want to hear this stuff, watch this stuff. It’s community based effort to make it available to people, including myself.

Chris: The art center is important first of all to the community, to bring arts of all sorts available for everybody, because it is, as Tara said the other nice, not the spice of life but the nutrition of life. It helps people learn, if they are having art involved with their learning process, so students should always have arts involved. The art center embellishes the life of the community greatly by all the concerts and workshops, I just don’t know how Eastport really could do as well without the art center. Maybe not as important to the world, but it’s important to this part of the world.

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Meg: There are a lot of wonderful places we have yet to go, I feel like we’re just getting started.

Quinn: Setting the Stage is written and produced by me, Quinn Rose. You heard interviews in this series with David Reiffel, James Bundy, Barbara Smith, Greg Biss, Joyce Weber, Lou Esposito, Jay Skriletz, Ann Skriletz, Meg McGarvey, Brian Schuth, Alison Brennan, Chris Grannis, Lynn Mitchell, and Jean Wilhelm. Our music is Fireflies and Stardust from incompetech.com and our show art was designed by Allison Truj. You can find us on Twitter @setthestagefm or online at settingthestagepodcast.com, where there are transcripts of all of the episodes. Thank you so much for listening to this series and supporting it. Take a minute to look up what community theater is happening near you. You never know what you might find.