Photo by Lauren Schneiderman

A theater company forced to cut costs in a challenging economy finds a loyal community eager for its new season.

For the past twelve years, Portland Stage’s Artistic and Executive Director, Anita Stewart, has worked to create plays that depend on open communication between actors and audiences.  She sees live theater as one of the few remaining shared experiences available to people today.  Sitting in the prop-filled pink prep space known as the “salmon room,” Stewart is animated as she discusses theater’s importance beyond the company.  “With the rise of computers, it’s so easy to go off in a corner and go look at Youtube and see what’s happening . . . Live theater is one of those few opportunities where you’re coming together and doing something that most early men and women were doing – which is telling a story.”

Stewart’s responsibilities are complex and time-consuming.  A set designer by trade, she has helmed all but two adaptations of A Christmas Carol since Portland Stage began performing the show in 1996.  She is also responsible for choosing productions up to six months before the season begins, based on audience surveys that circulate during the theater year.  Stewart also writes grants with the company’s Managing Director, Cami Barrantes.  Directing Carol takes eight hours a day, six days a week.  Stewart sums up her work, “You’re just as likely to find me back painting as you are in a board meeting.” She has even been known to dust the theater’s bathrooms.

Photo by Lauren Schneiderman

 

Click here to listen to an interview with Anita Stewart.

Three months into the 2009 season, Portland Stage has exceeded projected sales for the year’s first shows.  Stewart explains that in choosing shows, there’s “always the sense that we want to be at least with the ball, if not ahead of the ball in terms of what’s happening politically, emotionally in the country . . . We need a lot of laughs, because life’s been pretty tough.”  The first show of the season, Wendy Wasserstein’s Third, was set at a liberal arts college during the escalating conflict between the United States and Iraq.  Due to economic pressures, the company has made a priority of keeping cast numbers down for the season.  This has given Stewart the challenge of staging shows that feel larger than they are but still provoke audience responses with “minimal” drama.  Company predictions had audience attendance down fifteen percent, but Stewart is relieved that they are only down two percent, which she finds “inspiring.”  She says, “It’s the audience that we’re doing it for and that’s really what matters . . . If it’s a full house, it’s great to play to.  When you’re playing to twenty people, it’s awful, it sucks, you just don’t want to be there.”

Currently, ticket sales count for 72 – 73 percent of the company’s budget, while most theaters split 60/40 or even 50/50 between earned and contributed funds.  Stewart notes that despite increasing costs, the budgets for sets have not changed, explaining, “We’re actually doing the same with a lot less and that gets harder and harder every year.”  The upcoming year is an important one for Portland Stage – 2010 marks the tenth anniversary of the move to their current location at 25 Forest Avenue.  Plans for the upcoming year include designing a new theater for kids, or a space on-site where students will be able to learn about both acting and technical work “with the professionals who actually do it,” Anita says.  Unlike student drama programs, which specialize in improv games or memorization, Portland Stage hopes to give children basic training in acting and encourage analysis of text and character.  The program begins in January.

Maureen Butler, Daniel Noel and Anita Stewart compare notes at a rehearsal for A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

Photo by Ted Hornick

 

Among the existing programs at Portland Stage are the Affiliate Artists, or a group of Maine-based dramatic professionals who have worked with the company.  One of the Affiliates is Maureen Butler, an actress whose credits include six productions of A Christmas Carol at Portland Stage.  Butler believes that the company’s strengths lie in finding emotional connections that create empathy in audiences.  For Third, 2009’s first show, she shaved her head to play a cancer survivor.  She recalls “a woman in the audience . . . who was standing outside the theater when we came out and she was practically in tears and she said that she loved the play and that she was a survivor.  And she said that ‘Even if I hadn’t been, I would have been very touched by it.'”

Click here to listen to an interview with Maureen Butler.

Roughly two weeks before the opening of A Christmas Carol, a show that the company board once dismissed for lacking artistic merit, Anita Stewart and her company are optimistic.  Box office sales have started to pick up now that families know which of the show’s rotating casts will have their children in the ensembles.  Between 50 and 65 percent of the cast are returning and one member, David Glendinning, will have his 300th performance.  Butler is running late for rehearsal but no one minds when she comes to the practice space and shouts, “Apologies!”  During rehearsal, Stewart promises the show’s Scrooge that there will be no “wiggly kids in the ensemble” and assures him that they won’t stare or laugh at him when they arrive later that week. They drill until a quarter of eleven that morning, and break for ten minutes.  The actors will work until late that afternoon.  Performances won’t start until the day after Thanksgiving.  Beyond the show, there will be another five plays on Portland’s main stage through May of 2010.  In the 2010-2011 season, Portland Stage will set an especially topical show to Maine, John Cariani’s Last Gas.  Stewart is positive that it “will speak to Maine,” as it is set in Aroostook County.  She hopes the show will address how “we live together as different people with different agendas and different wants and needs.”

A quiet Box Office, several hours before curtain.

Photo by Ted Hornick

 

However, for now, as people clear out of rehearsal and reach for personalized plastic water cups, Anita is concentrating only on the script in front of her, as she says, “You’d think we would have it after so many years.”

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