Friday, June 1, 2012

That's What I Miss About Maine: Celebration Barn

I've sometimes joked about Maine since I moved out of the state, but it's all in good fun. At one point I told someone about how most people think of the state as the coastline and all of its lovely tourism-heavy towns and cities, many of which shut down over the winter. They responded that they had heard it wasn't worth checking out Maine north of I-95, the highway that hugs the coast most of the way through the state.

It's true that there's a big cultural difference between the coast and northern regions of Maine, to the point that a state representative wasted everyone's time a few years ago with a whiny bill suggesting that maybe the coast should split off as its own state called Northern Massachusetts. It's true that there's a lot more wealth in the oceanfront communities, and more to see. I lived perhaps a half-hour drive from the coast, and made the occasional trips to Freeport, a hip little community built around the L.L. Bean headquarters, and Portland, the state's largest city and its nerve center of nightlife and other fun. Northern Maine has a few of these gems (a friend lived in Hallowell, a great little Main Street community just outside the state capital of Augusta), but in general the towns are settled into the Maine wilderness and are a lot smaller and more sedate. In other words, there's not much to do.

OK, so there's this.

You can still find a few things to do on the weekend, though. Where I lived in western Maine, there was a surprisingly vibrant theater scene. The tiny community of Brownfield has the Stone Mountain Arts Center, a beautiful lodge-like arena combining musical performances with dining. A little ways north, the Deertrees Theatre in Harrison is chock full of musical performances during the summer and has an art gallery for you to peruse while you wait. A stone's throw from where I used to live in Norway, the Grange Hall was host to a play or two each year put on by community troupes. And I was very much saddened to see that one of the best parts about the miniscule community of Buckfield, an Oddfellows hall converted into a theater known simply as the Oddfellow Theater, held its final performance last year.

And out in the woods in the middle of South Paris is this place, the Celebration Barn Theater. It's perched on the curve of a quiet rural road, surrounded by some meadows and even a chicken coop. From the outside, it looks an awful lot like the farm building it apparently once was. But the red and white siding has been spruced up, a subtle ramp at one entrance provides handicapped access, and of course the entrance sign lets you know that, chickens aside, the farm is long gone.

Inside, the space has been nicely renovated with a stage and seating space. Posters and photographs of past performances and actors hang around the foyer, which does triple duty for ticket sales (done from a table and chair), gift shop (a bookshelf with mugs, DVDs, and other assorted things), and concession stand (also from a table, as I remember). Hidden away among the upper floors are the rooms for for actors who live at the barn during summer programs, although some of their habitat extends to the main floor. A secondhand library, dominated by old National Geographic magazines, is tucked away in a nook. There's also a kitchen there with a prominent white board letting everyone know what their chore duties are.

The Celebration Barn was founded in 1972 by Tony Montanaro, a theater instructor and performer whose goal was to create a school for mime, storytelling, improv, and other theatrical shows. I remember the range of shows keeping true to this idea, with comedy performances, one-man shows, juggling, music, and more. Montanaro died in 2002, but his work was carried on for 18 years by Carol Brett, who took over as executive director of the Celebration Barn in 1989. Since Brett's death in 2009, the Celebration Barn has established a fund in her name for the theater's upkeep.

Brett's retirement in 2007 meant I arrived in Maine just as a young woman named Amanda Huotari was taking over the Celebration Barn. Amanda describes herself on her website as a seventh-generation Mainer who got her academic chops at Emerson College with further study in France and Italy. There are plenty of times when she takes to the stage herself, chiefly as the effervescent character Elizabeth in the show The Soirée. When I first started working in the Oxford Hills, I was worried that the only young people I was going to see would be names on the arrest log. It was certainly a breath of fresh air to meet Amanda, who has become well-known as a leader in both the community and among the young professionals in the area.

I could usually only catch a performance or two each year, but each time it was well worth it. I hope the Celebration Barn and Amanda are still doing well, and wish them the best.

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