[Ship bell dings, the sound of children playing by water starts in the background]
David: I mean we knew what New York theater was, we knew what Boston theater was, we knew what California theater was, but we didn’t know what America was.
Greg: Eastport has been, since its inception, a fluid community. There’s a lot of talk about people from away, and people from here, this is not a new phenomena at all, this has been the case in Eastport for 200 years. It has to do with the fact that this is a border community, it’s sort of the edge of the Earth right here.
Quinn: Eastport, Maine is on the edge of the Earth. On one side, there’s ocean. As you might be able to guess from its name, it’s the easternmost city in the United States and is a port city. Technically, it is ocean on all sides—Eastport is entirely made of islands. Now with ocean on one side and forest on the other, this may not sound like the ideal place to mount an ambitious musical that requires dozens of cast and crew members—but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s talk about what Eastport is.
Eastport’s own website describes it like this:
[newscaster background music begins]
“Eastport, Maine is one of the most innovative small cities in the United States. We are growing and we want you to come and see why. Eastport has huge advantages for companies looking to invest in the Northeast, including a deep-water port, an innovative approach to business environment, a fantastic quality of life, and a committed and active citizenry.
Connected by causeway, airport, deep-sea port, and ferries, Eastport is at the center of a vibrant binational business and cultural community. As a tourism destination, Eastport rivals many of its better-known neighbors to the south, but with less traffic!”
[newscaster music ends, Americana music fades in]
Now, “less traffic” is one way to put it. Eastport, with its 1200 residents, is one of the more populated places in Washington County. Of course, Washington County has a population density of 13 people per square mile. It takes about four hours to drive from one end to another and there are only 3 traffic lights in that entire area.
And, in fact, none of those traffic lights are in Eastport. Just as the website claims, the city is built similarly to the more well-known wealthy towns further south down the Maine coast. There are plenty of cities down the Maine coastline full of tourists exploring the cute independent stores selling original art and handcrafted sweets, nature lovers enjoying the gorgeous views, and so-called “snowbirds” who live in Southern states in the winter and Maine in the summer. A lot of these towns are relatively close to Portland, the largest city in Maine, which boasts a large airport, a huge number of incredible restaurants, and close proximity to Boston, Massachusetts.
Eastport, on the other hand, is four hours north of Portland. While it has the same kind of amazing views and charming stores as more southern coastal towns, the downtown is exactly one street. There is still a strong tourism industry in Eastport, especially surrounding its popular festivals in the summer. In fact, the Eastport Independence Day festival is one of the largest in Maine. Still, despite the inviting landscape and reasonable real estate costs, pure geographic reality makes it difficult to attract the same level of tourists and summering investment bankers.
It wasn’t always this way. For a period of time in the 1800s, Eastport was the second largest trading port in the United States, only behind New York City. Its northeast location was a great advantage and at one point sustained 13 sardine factories within the city limits. Over time, the fishing industry declined and the town went bankrupt. There is still an active fishing and shipping economy in Eastport, but it’s much less strong than it once was. Eastport’s population has been falling more or less steadily since 1900, both from people moving away and passing away—the median age in Eastport is 55. In 2018, there were 4 births… and 11 deaths.
I hope I’ve shared enough about this town that it’s not surprising to learn that Eastport is beloved by the people who live there, but not very well known outside of Washington County. If you do know about Eastport and you don’t live in Maine, you most likely heard about it from Deborah and James Fallow. They’re writers who love Eastport and visited it multiple times while writing their book Our Towns, and they contributed multiple articles to The Atlantic about it over those years. One of those articles was all about the arts in Eastport. You see, a few decades ago it became apparent that Eastport had attracted quite a community of artists.
[Americana music fades out, amateur orchestra music fades in]
That’s where my connection to Eastport comes in. I didn’t grow up in this city, but in one of the many tiny towns dotted around Washington County with a few hundred residents each. However, I spent nearly every Saturday during my middle and high school years in Eastport as I played in the youth orchestra. My sister hung photographs in their gallery and we went there to see plays and independent films. Eastport is where the arts are in Washington County. That didn’t happen by accident. It’s been nurtured and grown over decades. And while an entire community of people helped and continue to help that be true, a surprising amount of credit can be given to one woman.
Greg: The Art Center is the product of many hands, but if there was one figure that was absolutely essential, essential, in its early years, that would be Joyce Weber.
Barb: Joyce Weber—
Chris: This was Joyce Weber—
Jean: And said, “you have to see Joyce Weber!”
Quinn: Joyce is still an active part of the arts community in Eastport and has been on the board of the Eastport Arts Center since its founding in 1985. There’s no better person to explain how the Art Center started than Joyce herself.
[orchestra music fades out]
Joyce: Okay, I was having a morning cup of coffee around my kitchen table, three of the artists around town. I don’t know who said it, but somebody said, there are no galleries in this town. Not anywhere was there a sign of art. Except we knew there were artists out there everywhere, working. So someone said, why don’t we open up a gallery downtown? So we called a meeting of possible artists who would be interested. There were about eight who showed up, and then we had a potluck dinner to invite more, and we had about 15 around the table so we knew we had something going here. And we got ourselves organized, found a place to rent downtown, improving the building greatly in lieu of rent because you could see through the corners where the walls came together, there were little cracks, you could see air. It needed a lot of work, this building did. So we called upon our spouses and other members of our family to go down and repair it. So we repaired the building and made it into a really nice space. That was how we got started. Our first show we had about 15… no there were only 8 of us that time. And every succeeding summer we would invite more artists who were interested in being part of a cooperative gallery. And went through all the throes of organizing and getting our 5013c and so forth. So that’s how we got started.
Quinn: A very reasonable question at this point is “what is the Eastport Art Center, anyway?” Well, like Joyce said, it started as just a gallery—a way to bring together some of Eastport’s artists and share their art with the town at large. But today the Eastport Art Center is an umbrella organization covering 7 constituent groups, from visual arts to film to music to theater. It has a board of directors, four staff members, and its own dedicated building. How did a gallery become an expansive community center? Just as artists are unlikely to be contained to one medium, Eastport was not limited to just one type of artistic expression. Another community member who was with the Art Center from the beginning, Lou Esposito, explained to me how he was involved with some early theater:
Lou: I had done some stuff in high school and I just hadn’t—for some reason I had an itch to do a play. And I had a friend in town, a good friend, had a theater background who had the theater knowledge and expertise to sort of direct. So we did a show, it was a silly little comedy called Greater Tuna. It was done in the band room in the high school. It certainly wasn’t anywhere near the quality of production of, that they’re doing now, but it was a blast. And the community just came out in droves, and people still talk about it, it was a very funny show and it was very big cast. I think the town was just hungry for something like that. That was done in ‘88 I think, and then in ‘89 we reprised the play for a fundraiser. The Rotary Club sponsored us and produced that. Pretty much the same cast. And even before that, even before I arrived in town, the Rotary had done minstrel shows. There was a history of productions in Eastport forever. Long before me. So we had that little bit of history, Joyce Weber’s husband was in Greater Tuna. Of course she’s pretty heavily involved with the Art Center from inception.
Quinn: See, I told you Joyce Weber is everywhere. But what Lou says next is why Eastport has the theater that it does today, and why you’re listening to a podcast about this tiny city in rural Maine.
Lou: There was a lot of buzz about Cornerstone coming to town, so it was a pretty natural—it was just a year after we had done Greater Tuna, so it was a natural fit to want to be involved in it. You couldn’t live in Eastport without hearing about this thing that was about to happen.
Quinn: Cornerstone Theater Company sounds like an impressive, well-established theater group. And it is! They’ve done countless incredible productions over the years. However, in 1990, Cornerstone Theater Company was just a group of recent college grads with bold ideas. They were traveling around the country, building productions in rural towns that had little or no theater beforehand. And out of all the towns in the Northeast, they chose to come to Eastport. I asked James Bundy, the former managing director of Cornerstone Theater and the current dean of Yale Drama School, why they chose Eastport.
James: So oftentimes, some of our best contacts were made through State Art Councils. So we would contact the state art council to try to find a community that might be interested in hosting Cornerstone. The basic premise was that whatever community we were going to work with had to provide a venue for us to use and housing for us to live in.
Joyce had a slightly different version of why they picked Eastport.
Joyce: Well I think they were–we were their thirteenth residency, and the only state in the country that they hadn’t really explored was the state of Maine. So they… I think, I can’t remember now, I think they called the Maine Arts Commission first to see if they could recommend a place for them. And they said we’ve been looking at a little community on the coast called Eastport. And the arts commission said oh you wouldn’t want to go there, there’s nothing there. It’s just a fishing, shipping town. And they knew immediately that was where they wanted to go because that’s what they were looking for, a place where there wasn’t theater. And it sounded like a real adventure, so.
Quinn: It’s unclear whether The Maine Arts Commission specifically recommended Eastport or didn’t think it was a good option at first, but one way or another, Cornerstone heard about the town and were intrigued. Maybe it was the challenge of tackling theater in a town with a struggling economy and aging population. Maybe it was the practical consideration that Eastport had enough available housing for them to stay in, and a few theatrical productions in the city already. Maybe it just sounded like an adventure.
The members of Cornerstone Theater were about to discover a lot more than just a fishing town. Over the next few months the challenges that Eastport faces would be woven into the art they made there.
Joyce: What they would do, they would come to a community where they were going to have a residency and they would spend some time there. Until they became, had a good understanding of the community and the dynamics there. And then they would all sit down together with some members of the community that were interested in being involved, and select a piece that would deal with the issues of where they lived. So that the theater that they would be doing, and most of the places they went people had never done theater before, it would be a part of their life. It would be experiencing something that they really understood and make a lot more sense.
Quinn: And most importantly, they would weave in the fabric of this full community. Eastport is not the only town that’s important to this story.
Joyce: “So when they came here, they realized right away–and this was back then, it’s changed considerably since then–the relationship between Eastport and Pleasant Point was not exactly friendly. So they felt it was important to bring along some people from Pleasant Point to be a part of this.”
[Americana music returns]
David: “It seemed like it had a lot of…. a lot of interesting… I don’t want to say divisions. I guess there were subcommunities within the community, that it became very obvious that there were different kinds of people there, which is another thing that excited us.”
Quinn: Setting the Stage returns in two weeks with more about the relationship between Eastport and the neighboring Native American reservation Pleasant Point, as well as how in the world Cornerstone managed to pull off a 40-person musical on the edge of the Earth.
Setting the Stage is written and produced by me, Quinn Rose. You heard interviews in this episode with Joyce Weber, Lou Esposito, James Bundy, Greg Biss, David Reiffel, Chris Grannis, and Barb Smith. 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 for behind the scenes images and opportunities to get free stickers of our show art, on Tumblr @settingthestagepodcast for transcripts of every episode, and for everything at settingthestage.transistor.fm. If you liked this week’s episode, why not share it with someone you think would like it too? Thank you for listening, and keep an ear out for our next episode on February 14.