Dave Register and his creative partners are betting big on the Portland arts community and its patrons.
After staging an outdoor theater production last year – largely to flex muscles that had atrophied during the pandemic – the founder of East Shore Arts has teamed with another local organization, Mayo Street Arts, for the first Portland Theater Festival this summer.
The festival will feature three productions, two staged at Mayo Street Arts and another at Mechanics’ Hall, that will run consecutively through the summer with shows every Thursday through Sunday from mid-July until Labor Day – 36 in all.
Register, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth and has Broadway and television credits, returned home to Maine from Los Angeles during the pandemic. He said he was inspired to create the summer-long event after the success of last year’s show, “The Aliens,” which sold out eight performances.
“My ambitions for that project were modest and somewhat self-interested,” he said. “I wanted to act in something with some friends, in part because all of the pandemic shutdowns were crippling for us.
“What we found was that the reception was much greater than we anticipated. People really responded to it.”
Although the Portland community is rich with theater opportunities for patrons year-round, there is a lull in the summer months.
After last summer’s show ended, Register said he heard from lots of people: What’s next?
“And I said, ‘Well … nothing. I hadn’t thought beyond that show,” he said.
A local business owner, Mary Allen Lindemann of Coffee By Design, encouraged Register to apply for one of the company’s Rebel Blend grants, which support the local arts community. He did and was selected.
“It wasn’t a ton of money, but it was a spark and a vote of confidence that others might be willing to put up resources too,” he said.
So, he started talking to local friends and collaborators about bringing something back in 2022.
“I was teaching a class at Mayo Street and working with all these actors and the consensus was, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’ ” Register said.
Register pitched the festival idea to Ian Bannon, executive director at Mayo Street, in mid-November, and they started gathering business support. Mayo Street worked on last year’s production as well. Register had been looking for a location to stage “The Aliens,” and connected with Will Pratt, co-owner of Tandem Coffee, who also is a board member at Mayo Street.
“Will said, ‘Not only can you use my space, but I’ve got a great producing partner to help make this happen,’ and we joined on board then,” Bannon said.
Register and Bannon serve as executive producers on all three productions.
The goals for the Portland Theater Festival from the beginning have been twofold: to put on a summer event that’s accessible to everyone (tickets are $20) and to produce professional shows that challenge both the actors and the audiences.
“The purpose of this festival is not to put up a show that everybody knows can sell and to make money doing that,” Bannon said. “Obviously, we don’t wish to lose our shirt during this endeavor, but really being able to provide such a diverse array of programming in the inaugural season, that’s a statement that we’re looking to make.”
The budget for last year’s production was a modest $10,000.
Using that as a template, Register figured they could stage three shows this year for $35,000.
“That quickly grew to $50,000 and now we’re at $100,000,” he said.
In all, the festival will employ an artistic and administrative staff of 50 people at a time when theater jobs are scarce.
“You have to raise three times the ticket price to cover operating expenses,” Register said. “You’re never self-sustaining with ticket revenue, even if you charge $150 a ticket, and we’re certainly not doing that.
“But it’s an exciting challenge to find the money. It’s out there, you need to know where to get it.”
So far, the festival has confirmed more than 10 corporate and foundational sponsors, including the Onion Foundation, Gorham Savings Bank, Coffee By Design, Maine & Loire (a local wine shop), and Oxbow Brewing Co., whose finance director, Matt Delamater, is well known in the Maine theater world and also has Hollywood credits, most recently “The Tender Bar,” directed by and starring Ben Affleck.
Register said the support has been encouraging.
“If we pull it off well, folks will see the caliber and that will encourage and incentivize deeper investments and corporate sponsorships, and more foundational support too,” he said.
Bari Robinson, a New York actor who will direct one of the festival shows, has been involved in many productions in Maine and elsewhere and said he thinks the festival has arrived at an exciting time.
“I think the appetite for more offerings is quite strong in Portland,” he said. “Being able to bring such an eclectic season to our audiences will create even more energy within the community, and I hope that in turn helps all the theater companies gain even more audience.”
More and more during the pandemic, creators have found their way back to Maine, sometimes out of necessity. Register, like many actors, couldn’t find work in L.A. Now that he’s back in Maine, he’s still looking for work, but he’s also finding ways to create right here.
He’s also bringing as many talented local professionals into the fold as he can.
Kendall Cooper was a high school classmate of Register’s in Cape Elizabeth, and they did theater productions there. She’s now a casting director and has worked on several TV shows and movies, including the Showtime drama, “Homeland,” and the 2019 film adaptation of “Little Women.”
Like Register, Cooper recently moved back to Maine.
“We’ve collaborated on some things before over the years and I took an acting class from him during the pandemic,” said Cooper, whose first love was performing. “We were both spending more time in Maine and said, ‘We should do stuff together.’’’
As Register started to put together pieces for the festival, he had a casting director close by.
Cooper said she’s plenty busy working on other projects but made the festival a top priority.
“I love theater, and I love Maine, and I just wanted to help,” she said.
Two of the festival’s three shows will be staged at Mayo Street Arts, an 80-seat venue in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood. The third venue will be Mechanics’ Hall, an historic and recently renovated space on Congress Street.
Bannon said although last year’s production was successful, there is still some risk in what they are trying to accomplish.
“Audiences are smaller than they have been pre-pandemic, and that’s true across the country,” he said.
And this year’s shows aren’t necessarily household names.
For the first production, which opens Thursday, Register returned to the work of playwright Annie Baker, a 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote last year’s show.
This year, the festival will stage Baker’s one-act play “Body Awareness,” which is set in a small, fictional Vermont town and explores the relationship between a psychologist, her partner and her young adult son.
It’s being directed by well-known Portland theater director Sally Wood.
Robinson will direct the festival’s second show, “Pass Over,” written by Antoinette Nwandu. It premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in 2017 and made its Broadway debut last year. The play is inspired by Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” and centers on two Black men trying to pass the time and keeping a low profile around an angry police officer.
“It’s always important to challenge audiences, and sometimes they may not even be aware that they are being challenged until well into a play,” Robinson said in an email. “In regards to ‘Pass Over,’ I hope people will be able to identify with the humanity of the characters and the love they have for each other. It is difficult subject matter, but at the same time there are genuinely funny and touching moments in the show that are necessary to further the story. Connection and empathy are more important than ever, and theater has and will continue to serve our community in this moment. I’m grateful to be a part of it.”
The final production of the Portland Theater Festival will be “Pony,” written by Sylvan Oswald, a transgender interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. It will be directed by New York-based director Jess Barbagallo.
Register and others worked hard to bring top-level talent to Portland for the festival, but many participants are home-grown.
Cooper said because the festival’s shows are so diverse, casting was a challenge.
“We had to cast a wider net with some of these shows and try to reach people who might not see a casting notice,” she said. “There are so many who have the same lived experiences of some of those characters, and we thought that was really important.”
Register said he still doesn’t know what will become of the Portland Theater Festival, but he and many others are committed to seeing it succeed. He said, if nothing else, it’s providing opportunities for actors and others who might not have as many paid opportunities this time of year and giving audiences something they can think about long after the shows are over.
“Our show selection pulls from a really wide range of Portland and showcases what I think is a more accurate and true representation of our current city and how much diversity there actually is,” Register said. “Our shows absolutely have a social leaning, and if done property, they should urge people who see them to more expansive thinking and even change if we’re lucky.”
PORTLAND THEATER FESTIVAL SCHEDULE
The first Portland Theater Festival will offer 36 performances of three shows every weekend from mid-July through Labor Day. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 5 p.m. Sunday, unless specified below. The first two shows will be at Mayo Street Arts in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood. The venue for the third is Mechanics’ Hall on Congress Street. For more information on the festival and its shows or to purchase tickets, go to portlandtheaterfestival.org.
Here is the schedule for each production:
“Body Awareness,” by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Annie Baker is an examination of a couple, Phyllis and Joyce, whose relationship is tested when they host a guest artist in their home whose area of interest is female nude portraiture.
Thursday through Sunday, July 17; July 21-24; and July 28-31
“Pass Over,” by Antionette Nwandu, loosely based on the Samuel Beckett classic “Waiting for Godot,” is the story of two young Black men who contemplate their life and future on a New York street corner while interacting with an eccentric passerby and a racist police officer.
Aug. 4-7, Aug. 11-14 and Aug. 18-21. No performance on Saturday, Aug. 6. Special matinee at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13.
“Pony,” by Sylvan Oswald, is set near the famous murder scene in Georg Buchner’s 19th century German play, “Woyzeck,” and explores shifting gender roles and obsessive love in an economically depressed town.
Aug. 18-21, Aug. 25-27 and Sept. 1-4. No performance on Sunday, Aug. 28. Special matinee at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27.