Portland’s venerable theater company engages the community with thrilling performances and thought-provoking discussions.
“Portland Stage is a hub of activity,” says Anita Stewart, Portland Stage executive and artistic director. The theater company is in many ways the cultural heart of Portland, reaching beyond the stage to enrich the community through conversation and education. In addition to the directors and actors who bring each play to life, artisans working behind the scenes handcraft every set, prop, and costume at Portland Stage. As Stewart says, each performance is “an astounding feat of engineering that you don’t even realize is happening.” Sets contain complicated moving parts like rotating panels or a tree that can be climbed by a performer. “Similarly, the costume shop will replicate period clothing or create costumes that are quick-rigged for a split- second change,” Stewart explains. “An audience member only sees someone exit and reappear in a matter of seconds; they don’t realize all the work that goes into making that happen.”
Portland Stage produces classic pieces such as Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and Noël Coward’s A Song at Twilight, but also showcases new work by emerging playwrights from Maine and beyond.
Collaboration is integral to the Portland Stage ethos. Twenty-three staff members, ten interns, and a group of Affiliate Artists—theater professionals with strong connections to Maine— work with more than 100 guest artists to produce over 250 live performances each season.
Stewart says one thing that sets the theater apart is its ability to cross-pollinate local actors and artisans with professional actors, directors, and designers from New York City and beyond.
“These visiting artists and interns bring new ideas to us, but we, in turn, expose them to a place many have never been to, and they are consistently impressed by the level of artistic excellence we have right here in Maine,” Stewart says.
While it is easy to get wrapped up in the glamour and drama of the theater, Portland Stage is committed to making deeper connections with its audience. “Theater is about the community,” Stewart says. “It is about a shared experience of a story.” Post-show discussions and special student matinees keep the dialogue going, inviting theatergoers to examine the broader themes
of the plays. Portland Stage also partners with local organizations to connect plays to real-life situations.
Portland Stage recognizes the importance of including children in the arts and in these kinds of in-depth discussions. Its Theater for Kids offers after-school programs and summertime theater camps. Over 14,000 children participated in Portland Stage’s educational programs last season. “We are interested in connecting young people to the ideas and processes that professional actors use in the rehearsal rooms, digging into the text, understanding language and how interpretation can impact meaning,” says Stewart. Through student matinees, Portland Stage allows children to interact with actors post-show and ask them questions about a play’s theme or the acting process.
Ushering in the next generation of thespians dovetails into Portland Stage’s broader goals for the future. “Our goal is to nurture the new plays, the new audiences, and the new artists for the future,” Stewart says. “To get inside individual stories that are beyond your own experience, and begin to see where others are coming from, that is what we are seeking to provide.”