3: Theater in a Place Like This

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Quinn: When you’re trying to put on a five-act play from 1867 in a tiny island town that’s never had a full theater program before, what does it mean to succeed? Is getting up the show enough? Or is it about the deeper goals: connecting with a community, bringing different people together, creating sustainable art?

This is episode 3 of Setting the Stage. If you haven’t heard episodes 1 and 2 yet, I recommend listening to them first. You can catch up in less than an hour and continue on this story.

In the first two episodes we talked about Eastport, the rural Maine town with a struggling economy; Pleasant Point, the neighboring Native American reservation; and Cornerstone Theater, a group of young people traveling the country to build theater in rural areas. The players are all in place, so all that’s left is how these three groups came together to put on a show. In the end, what were Cornerstone’s goals in coming to Eastport, and did they meet them?

One we’ve already talked about: the idea of bridging two different communities through making theater together. But that wasn’t everything. James and David told me what their initial goals were as members of Cornerstone coming to Eastport and other rural areas.

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David: When we first started, we all, you know, we all went to Harvard, we had great high falutin thoughts about how we were going to change American theater. This was before we conceived of Cornerstone, it’s kind of what you do, you think “oh I’m going to have a huge impact in the theater scene in America.” And we realized that we didn’t know what America really was. 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. And so the initial idea was that we were going to go around and just perform all around the country and find out what theater would work in various places that weren’t New York, that weren’t the cosmopolitan–you know what’s in Chicago, what’s in Los Angeles. And then we came up with the idea of, if we were really committing to that, we would–and because we wanted to do big shows, we were all people who didn’t want to do little four person kitchen sink plays, we wanted to do big plays. I think Bill and Alison came up with the idea of including people in the community as casts. And that’s how we came to the idea of residencies.

James: Move beyond more sort of traditional, institutionalized relationship of theaters to communities in which there’s a big theater, people you know, all the artists and all the managers and all the technicians are in the theater, and the audiences come to that theater and then leave that theater. And I think we felt at that time that it was important for theaters to reach out and find audiences who wouldn’t necessarily go to those larger, more institutional theaters, who might not have access to that kind of artistry. We were interested in learning more about the nation and also bringing together people from different communities to tell stories that had particular relevance to those communities. We were interested in finding out what the questions and concerns of a particular community were and how to embody those in theater.

Quinn: Barbara Smith, an Eastport resident who’s been involved with the arts in Eastport for decades, had similar thoughts.

Barbara: Well their goals—well they were on this project, we were one stop on the project to go into communities that were, I guess you might call underserved, really connect with the people and the culture and create a production, a well known production, that they’ve just maybe tweaked in places. And I mean I think they did an excellent job of coming in and really going after what they wanted. The people, the involvement, getting to learn the history and the ways around here. And the production was very well attended, and had very good results. And then the fact that their other goal not only was doing this production for themselves and for us, but having us get so fired up that we wanted to go ahead and do our own.

Quinn: That leads to two important question. One, how did Cornerstone build the production to be intertwined with the Eastport culture? And two, how did theater continue in Eastport after they left?

When Cornerstone did one of their rural residencies, they would adapt the script of an existing play to fit the culture and language of a community. For Eastport, they chose the Norwegian play Peer Gynt, but rewrote it to fit the fishing town as p-i-e-r Pier Gynt. I first asked James and David what aspects of the culture in Washington Country they observed to weave into their adaptation.

David: I believe that we had already decided to do the adaptation of Pier Gynt by the time we arrived. It was as you say, this is a nautical town–we usually had already chosen the script that we would work on by the time we arrived in the town. The process of doing the adaptation was usually a couple of weeks listening to people, going to story circles, going to bars, going to the churches and just talking with people. I sought out people who were musicians in town like Barbara Smith, people who knew what the sound world was of the town. And then we would sit at the computer, the bunch of us, and work on the script. This one was actually–we split off into groups because it was such a huge script–we split off into groups and people would work on particular sections of it. I remember that Jay Skriletz and Peter Howard worked on the lyrics for the three–there are three women who are looking for trolls in the original, and they became three fisherwomen who were looking for mermen to sleep with. And Jay and Peter wrote these wonderful lyrics that had very specific references because Jay knew the area very well. He was from–I think he was either from Maine or he had moved to Maine, he had spent a lot of time there. He got very specific references that Mainers would get. That was the process and I went and listened to music at Pleasant Point. Deanna Francis sang me songs and got me in touch with people and sing me songs so I was able to bring that stuff into it. We had a bunch of really good musicians–it was one of the first times, one of the only times that I was able to work with a live band and that was very exciting. One way certainly that our eyes were opened was because we got very close with some people on the Passamaquoddy Reservation. Their relationship with Eastport, I think with lots of Native American tribes, the relationship with the outside world is very fraught. So that was specifically something that we were balancing, not always completely successfully. That we would come in with assumptions and with every white person good intention, and kind of, you know, be caught up short when people would say “no, that is not the way you want to approach this.” Which was an undercurrent that we didn’t really know about until we got there. That culture was much more a part of the adaptation, which was something that we didn’t go in planning because we didn’t really know that much about it but it guided our adaptation of the script, making Pier the mixed race child of a woman who lived in Pleasant Point completely changed the way that the adaptation went. And we had to find our way to how we were going to incorporate those two cultures together.

James: You know at the heart of what was learned about Washington County was that it was, in terms of reported income, one of the two poorest counties in the United States. Many young people in Eastport grow up with the sense that if they want to be able to learn a living in America, they have to leave the town in which they were raised. And kind of became a metaphor for that sense of longing and hope and fear about what a person’s future might be. And of course the thing about Pier is he actually doesn’t manage it very well, he actually makes a huge number of mistakes. But then he finds a kind of forgiveness in the end, where Solveig forgives him and he somehow seems to perhaps forgive himself. It’s a very touching story that way.

Quinn: Then I turned to the residents of Eastport to ask about their perspective on how the adaptation was done, starting with Barb Smith.

Barb: When they decided on the production—they did this around the country and in lots of other small communities, and what they liked to do is kind of figure out a real play that had been done and then kind of change it in such a way that it really reflected more of our community. And the play that they picked was Peer Gynt. And they kind of changed it a little bit and it became Pier Gynt, P-I-E-R, which of course we have piers in Eastport because we have a lot of water. And so there were, as I say, some adjustments. There was also musicians that came up with them, and songs were written specifically for this production. They spent a lot of time in the Eastport community as well as Pleasant Point, trying to drum up some interest in people working on this, whether they came in to help with the set, the stage, you know acting, music. And they got together quite a good sized group, ages—well, there were kids there, six, seven years old maybe, right up to older folks from both communities. 

Quinn: I also asked Joyce Weber, a pillar of the Eastport arts community.

Joyce: That was part of what they were trying to do here, part of their goals was to bring these two communities together, which they certainly did. And then they–after talking with some local people, they came up with a feeling for the issues here. Of course one of the issues was it was very difficult to make a living here. A lot of people if they graduated from high school would just leave, because there was nothing for them to do here. So they chose–and sometimes they would come back, they would come back because they missed Eastport a lot, once you live here for awhile you just can’t get it out of your system–they looked for a production they could do that would deal with these issues of having to leave home and go elsewhere to make a living and explore your life and make a life for yourself, but always wanting to come home. So Peer Gynt was the play that they chose, because that is about a man who left his home and traveled all over Europe, I guess. And finally returned. And it made that play that they put together… They used the actual lines of the play, but in a way that made it very understandable in terms of our community. And people really got it. I just couldn’t believe it. I never thought of this town as a theater town, but I think they had twelve performances and we just about sold out for every one. And people would be crying, local people, because it meant so much to them.

Quinn: In the end, Pier Gynt was incredibly successful. Not only did Cornerstone manage to recruit dozens of people to act, sing, and work on the production, the community showed up in droves to watch the show. It was designed with fishing imagery that resonated deeply with a town that had always relied on the fishing industry. David wrote original music partially inspired by Native American culture, which was sung by people of different backgrounds and colors. They chose a play about leaving home, which was achingly familiar to a place that’s known as somewhere you can’t make a good living anymore. And beautifully, it’s a play about coming back home.

Joyce: Anyway, the final scene of the play, he had left, and she was there alone, and he was gone for several years and traveled Europe and everything. And then he decided he really wanted to go home, as much as he had been unhappy there before, he knew that was where we needed to be. And Solveig was always hoping, always waiting, loving him even though he had left her. And in the final scene Solveig was cleaning fish, because that was what people did. They worked on, in Eastport anyway, they ended up doing something with fish. And she was sitting there, cleaning, scraping the scales off the fish, and singing a sad song about how she missed him. And that was when he came in to the theater. And they went into each other’s arms and did this little dance around and sang a lovely song together. It was really nice, really nice. So it was about coming home.

Quinn: While Pier Gynt was incredibly successful in Eastport and loved by many people who were involved, not everyone was in love with it. Lou Esposito had a few thoughts on the process of the adaptation, as well as how well Cornerstone equipped the Eastport community to keep making theater after they left.

Lou: I’m kind of a purist when it comes to the script. You know I don’t change, when I get involved with a play, I don’t change the script for any reason. It’s just not–who am I to think that I can do better than–and so I think rewriting a script, sort of dumbing it down so the audience can get it, I’m not really sure that’s necessary. I know that Cornerstone had a tradition of, before they came to Mississippi and they did Romeo and Juliet with a mixed race couple, they’re trying to make it so local people can get it. But people get it anyway if it’s done well. Who am I to rewrite Shakespeare, or Ibsen, or anybody else? I’m not really sure that’s necessary, but they’ve certainly been successful so it’s hard to argue with that. I guess there is that other point of view. It certainly, the result of it was, it moved along, it enhanced the process of what probably would have happened without them. It was an important step in things, and I think it was good for the community, but they mostly… Sort of the main characters, the main actors in this play were themselves, the Cornerstone folks. There wasn’t a lot of learning or technical learning beyond what you would get in being involved in any production. So that part of it was a little disappointing. But there were other positives as a result of them coming here, so it certainly was a good thing that they did.

Quinn: The next thing I’m about to say is going to sound like a plot development from a movie, it’s just too convenient—but one of the primary reasons that Eastport was about to continue making regular theater after Cornerstone left is because Cornerstone didn’t entirely leave. They left someone behind.

Lou: That was the big benefit of the whole experience, was the momentum that had begun and Jay was there to lend the expertise. And also the continuity for many years, he was willing and able able to do that and spend the energy and time to get them off to a good start and set the bar pretty high, a lot of the things that were instituted in those days are still done even today, so a lot of credit to Jay and he probably… I don’t know who would have done that had he not been here, and he wouldn’t have been here without Cornerstone, so.

Quinn: As a quick aside on Jay Skriletz—I’ve known him since I was 12. He did a few theater classes at my middle school, and I went to high school with his son. When I was a freshman he coached me in a poetry performance competition. I only learned about his connection to Cornerstone Theater when I started my research on this project and I was pretty blown away. And if the name sounds familiar to you too—we talked about him last episode. He was the man who was instrumental in getting the Passamaquoddy language taught in Calais High School. You may also recall a mention of him a few minutes ago too, when David was talking about a member of Cornerstone who used to live in Maine and so had insights on the slang and culture. Here’s Jay talking about his background and how we got here.

Jay: Well my connection with Cornerstone actually began in the late, middle 70s–I was helping my brother build his house and Dan Rather did a feature on Cornerstone, I think their first show, in Martha, Texas. Not sure about that. But I said “someday, I need to hook up with them.” And then I was living in Hoboken and they were doing a fundraiser in New York City, so I took my resume in. This was in 1978, maybe? 79? And they said come on. They were looking for interim tech director, so that’s the position I filled.

Quinn: Quick note here: he missed a decade by accident, this was in the late 80s, not the late 70s.

Jay: We went to Washington DC and did a fundraiser, went to Boston and did a fundraiser, and the next residency was in Eastport, and I thought “oh that’s pretty interesting” because I had lived in Machiasport from 1975-1984. Cornerstone was in the process of moving away from rural residencies, which is what attracted me to it, into looking for a city to live in and do neighborhood residencies in different kinds of neighborhoods. Lots of discussion, lots of discussion, everything was done by consensus. And they picked Los Angeles, that’s my hometown, I had no interest in going back to Los Angeles, so that’s when I decided I’d just stay here.

Quinn: And that brings us past Pier Gynt—but what about that first essential goal, the bridging of communities? Joyce commented on the involvement of members of Pleasant Point.

Joyce: Being a part of the play, all of those barriers kind of just fell away. And it was good because we got to know each other in a way that we never would have before. I’m not so sure that that has continued. I think we’ve to some extent we’re not as close as we were then, but it did make a difference in our community. And of course that was one of their goals, wherever they went, was to really have an impact on the community and do it through theater.

Quinn: On one level, Cornerstone met all of its goals in Eastport. It brought together two different communities in one production. That show was immensely popular, recruiting about forty participants and enticing many more audience members. It was full of resonant messages and imagery that the people of Eastport loved. And this isn’t really about the success of the show, but it is kind of amazing–it was preserved with both video and audio recordings.

Female singer: I promise I’ll be waiting still / I can feel the snow before it falls / I can feel the leaves before…

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Male singer: … Get up and dance / On the dance floor you might find your true romance /  Shake a leg, get up and dance dance / Moving to a tune is too enchanting…

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Quinn: But what happened after the curtain went down?

Quinn (in an interview): Did the members from Pleasant Point continue working with Stage East?

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.

Greg: We at the Art Center would welcome a lot more Native participation. We’re not always sure how to arrange it.

Quinn: So Stage East was formed, and theater continued in Eastport, but it didn’t take the Pleasant Point community along with it. And now that it’s been almost thirty years… Stage East is beginning to falter as well. Next episode, you’ll hear more from Brian Schuth, the president of Stage East, as well as many more community members about what’s happened to the theater group in recent years.

Brian: You know I talk about doing theater here, I try to tell people who I feel like don’t understand what a gift it is, not just to have a community theater, but to have a community theater in a place like this. 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. The core of the community gets smaller, older.

Chris: Stage East has been struggling for the past couple years to get enough people to put on a show.

Brian: 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. 

Jean: Well it’s just in shambles at the moment. It really is.

Brian: 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.

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Quinn: How has the Eastport Art Center worked with the Pleasant Point community over the past three decades? And is there even hope of sustainable community theater in 2019? You can hear the conclusion of this story in our next episode.

Setting the Stage is written and produced by me, Quinn Rose. You heard interviews in this episode with David Reiffel, James Bundy, Barbara Smith, Greg Biss, Joyce Weber, Lou Esposito, Jay Skriletz, Brian Schuth, Chris Grannis, 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 the episodes. If you would like to get a free sticker of our beautiful show art, you can do that buy writing a review of us in Apple Podcasts and sending it to Setting the Stage on Twitter.

Thank you for listening, and keep an ear out for our last episode on March 14.