All the Town’s a Stage

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A renovated opera house has brought life —and laughs —to the remote fishing village of Stonington.

  • BY: KIM RIDLEY
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY: BENJAMIN MAGRO

On a frigid February day thirteen years ago, Linda Nelson and Judith Jerome crossed a threshold that turned out to be far bigger than they would ever have imagined. They stepped from the glare of a bright winter day into the cavernous, stinking gloom of the Stonington Opera House, which was for sale and had been empty for seven years. The beams of their flashlights revealed a disheveled mess. Sand from the driveway had washed halfway into the building and the seats were in a jumble. Shards of ceiling, animal poop (which turned out to come from the resident raccoons), and yards upon yards of Super 8 film littered the floor.

Nelson and Jerome, who lived in New York City at the time, were searching for a home for their dream: a performing arts organization in a small, rural town. At the sight and smell of the decrepit old opera house, many people would likely have run straight back to New York, but not these women. They decided to buy the place.

People around Stonington, a fishing village on the far southern end of Deer Isle, wished the women well, but they weren’t holding their breath. “You see lots of people coming to the town office with good ideas and you think, ‘Well, we’ll see how that goes,’ ” says Stonington town manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris. “Not to be disrespectful, but it seemed they had some pretty tall ideas and that it would be quite something to fix that building up.”

Back then, there wasn’t much reason to visit Stonington, other than catching the mail boat to Isle au Haut or poking through a few galleries in the summer. There was nothing to do in the winter. The nearest movie house was an hour away in Ellsworth, and the selectmen were particularly worried about the lack of activities for young people. Many storefronts sat empty. The opera house loomed at the far end of Main Street like a harbinger of more desolation to come.

“There was a time when this town could have taken a turn for the worse,” Billings-Pezaris says. “The pharmacy left in the nineties, and things kept going down from there. Once the grocery store closed and the school moved, it was scary because you could see how we’d lost some of our life down here.”

So what were Nelson and Jerome thinking? “Our families asked us the same question,” Jerome says, laughing at the memory.

But something about this remote town of nearly 1,200 year-rounders, which harbors Maine’s largest lobster port and is also rife with artists and other creative types, hooked both Nelson and Jerome. For generations, people have made a living here from land, sea, and stone, surviving the boom and bust of granite quarries and the ebb and flow of fisheries. Short of a trust fund, those who thrive in a remote island community like this one tend to be enterprising, competent, creative, and extremely hardworking.

“We’re both working-class girls, and we really like the working nature of this town,” Nelson says. And so, with the Stonington selectmen’s blessing, they got to work themselves. They launched Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House in 1999 with co-founders Carol Estey and Linda Pattie and hired volunteers and contractors to restore the ninety-plus-year-old building. They commuted many weekends to pitch in with volunteers and work crews who did everything from shoveling the place out to relocating the resident raccoons to installing a bathroom and electricity.

From the outside, the Stonington Opera House remains a no-frills affair: a green-and-white behemoth perched halfway up a hill overlooking a hardworking harbor. Among the building’s few adornments are a huge sign high on the seaward side that proclaims “Opera House.” and three small wooden panels at street level that spell out “F-U-N.” What happens inside the 250-seat theater, however, with its cozy red walls and magic box stage, is, at times, extraordinary.

Since the Stonington Opera House reopened in 2000, Opera House Arts has produced an intriguing mix of original theater, music, and other live performances that bring together professional performers and homegrown talent on the same stage. It offers quite literally, something for everyone. An annual Shakespeare production. People doing yo-yo tricks. An acclaimed international jazz festival. Community play readings. An original children’s opera. A PechaKucha event with local residents presenting projects ranging from chandlery to modern dance to coffee roasting.

Open year-round and showing first-run movies as well as live events, the opera house is affectionately called “the island’s living room.” People have been known to show up for movies wearing pajamas under their winter coats.

For Nelson and Jerome, however, who are partners in life as well as in work, the opera house is about something much deeper: democracy. “The idea is, how do we use performance skills, like listening and improvisation, to be better citizens,” Nelson says. “That’s the connective tissue. And by being better citizens, strengthening our communities.”

It’s all well and good to have such a lofty mission, not to mention a catchy bumper sticker: “Incite art. Create community.” It’s entirely another thing, however, to actually do it.

Perhaps no other project embodies the ambitious aims of Opera House Arts better than Dear Fish. Two years in the making, this musical play tells the stories of fishermen and women in Deer Isle-Stonington and Juneau, Alaska, in their own words based on interviews local school students conducted with them. More than three hundred people — fishing families, parents and grandparents, teachers, friends and community members — shoveled out from a blizzard and packed Deer Isle’s Reach Performing Arts Center for the show last April.

Fifty-three students in grades three through twelve sang and performed stories they had collected from fishermen about life on the sea, from the struggles of dealing with fishing regulations to more lighthearted topics like whether or not to rename a boat. The young performers brought it all to life: the humor and loss, the everyday routine of a fisherman’s wife, the flashes of grace from lives spent on the water — the freedom and shocking beauty, the peril and the safe return.

Excerpts of letters between students in Maine and Alaska wove the stories together, as did adaptations of chanties and other songs. The students sang a version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” that substituted the names of vanishing fish species for flowers. Hearing these children and grandchildren of fishermen sing an elegy to Maine’s decimated fisheries transcended sentimentality. It was heartbreaking.

In another poignant moment, a fifth-grade boy with a slender frame and straight brown bangs portrayed Donald Trundy, an eighty-two-year-old retired fisherman in Stonington. A photograph of Trundy, who had worked on a sardine carrier from the time he was sixteen, was projected behind the young actor as he spoke the elderly fisherman’s words: “I’d like to see the fish come back, but it doesn’t look good.”

“The play brought tears to our eyes, and laughter, too,” says Linda Weed, a Deer Isle native who has taught in the local elementary school for eighteen years. She has a particularly unique perspective on Dear Fish: in addition to participating as a teacher throughout the two-year project, she’s Donald Trundy’s daughter.

“I think the uniqueness of our rural voices is getting more and more lost in this country as our communications get so homogenized,” Nelson says. “If everybody Tweets and speaks in 140 characters, it’s hard to pick up the Maine accent. Giving life to the stories of our own community and creating work that is specific to this place is a really important piece of our mission.”

Billings-Pezaris, whose Deer Isle roots run back to the 1700s, thinks Nelson and her cohorts are doing a good job. “The opera house has shown bits and pieces of the fishing community. They do it respectfully and let people speak for themselves,” she says. “They just let the stories and interactions happen.”

“A lot of theaters talk about community engagement, but the opera house is exemplary,” says Ben Pesner, a New York theater professional and author who summers in Stonington. “This is a theater in a rural community. You can’t survive if you’re not involved. This is not just a theater. It’s an educational institution, and I think that’s really exciting.”

One of the most innovative productions is “Shakespeare in Stonington.” Launched in 2001, this popular annual event brings together Equity actors and local performers on the same stage in productions directed by theater professionals from New York.

There was some skepticism in the beginning. “At first I thought, ‘Shakespeare? In a crappy old opera house?’ ” laughs John Ollman, a Philadelphia gallery owner and Stonington summer resident. But he was so impressed and captivated by the performances and the opera house that he subsequently joined the board.

Opera House Arts’ first Shakespeare production, The Tempest, was set on an island similar to Deer Isle and included a lobster. Now Shakespeare in Stonington has been produced every year since. “It’s bridge-building,” Nelson says. “Everybody has read some Shakespeare and everybody deserves to see it live instead of just reading it in high school and therefore hating it.”

Shakespeare in Stonington also includes community play reading, conversations, and Shakespeare in the schools. Galen Koch, who grew up on Deer Isle, got hooked after she acted in Shakespeare in Stonington’s Romeo and Juliet when she was fourteen. “Working with actors who respected Shakespeare for what it is, emotionally charged poetry, I was actually able to understand it for the first time,” Koch says.

All through high school, Koch acted in subsequent Shakespeare productions, interned with Jerome, worked as assistant house manager at the opera house, and ran the production studio for Opera House Arts’ Imagination Project, a public access digital media studio. She and a high school friend also made their own film, Island Prom, one of several original documentaries, along with Tire Tracks and Life by Lobster, produced by students and young people in Deer Isle through the Imagination Project.

“By being involved with the opera house, and having a lot of freedom in that work,” Koch says, “I knew I had the power to make something out of very little.”

Sam Coombs, whose ancestors settled on Deer Isle in the 1700s, echoes Koch’s sentiments. “When you live on an island, there aren’t many job opportunities, especially when you’re a college student,” says Coombs, who has worked summers as house manager for the opera house, learning the many intricate ropes of running a theater. He is in his third year at the University of Southern Maine, where he is studying history and earning his teaching certificate.

Nelson hopes Coombs and others like him will return. “We’re looking for the next generation who will love and care for this place,” she says. “And we want to create more jobs so young people can come back to the island.”

As towns in Maine and elsewhere struggle to keep Main Street alive and mend the fraying social fabric, Nelson and Jerome are showing how the arts can help revive local economies, build community, and inspire all manner of creativity. At a time when arts organizations everywhere are grappling with budget cuts, the opera house generates an estimated $1 million for the community every year.

“It certainly is an anchor for us,” says town manager Billings-Pezaris. “The opera house has helped other businesses flourish. People are coming down here on weekends. The opera house at nighttime ties the town together.”

It also offers opportunities for everyone to get involved — not just artsy kids and adults. All live performances are free for Deer Isle-Stonington students. Opera House Arts offers playwriting workshops, community play-reads, and other low-cost or free creative opportunities that are open to everyone. And, of course, there are plenty of opportunities for people to perform. Choreographer Alison Chase’s Quarryography and Q-2 Habitat, set in an old granite quarry on the island, included not just professional dancers, but also a local guy who operates an excavator.

This year, the Stonington Opera House turns one hundred. Special performances slated to celebrate its anniversary include a vaudeville gala, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and a revival of the beloved 2010 Opera House Arts original children’s opera, Burt Dow, Deep Water Man, based on Robert McCloskey’s 1963 children’s book of the same name and written by the late composer and longtime Stonington resident Maia Aprahamian.

The lively lineup speaks to how Nelson and Jerome have revived an important piece of what makes Stonington special.

The island’s living room — where years ago people attended dances, celebrated high school graduations, and watched movie matinees on Saturday — is again a thriving place. It has become more than a funky old theater at the end of a beautiful and remote island. At its best, it reflects the community the way the harbor shines back granite and clouds, gulls and fishing boats. Thank goodness this place wasn’t just left to the raccoons.

Kim Ridley of Brooklin is the former editor of Hope magazine, and her articles on science, culture, and food have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times.

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