A few days before Barack Obama was to be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, Bill Raiten had a humble request for the then leader-to-be.
“We’re hoping Obama will give us some money to renovate the stage [of the Blue Hill Town Hall],” said Raiten, the director of the New Surry Theatre and Performing Arts School. “Come on, Barack! He said he wanted to help out the arts!”
Obama ran his 2008 campaign on a promise of change, so change must be in the air. It certainly has been for the New Surry Theatre, which last year finished its first season in its first permanent home — the Blue Hill Town Hall. The town hall just hosted the NST’s current production of the classic “On Golden Pond,” which will take the stage this weekend at The Grand theater in Ellsworth, with performances on Jan. 23-25, and again on Jan. 30-31.
“Our mind-set has completely changed, now that we have a place to be based out of,” said Raiten. “It gives us some more permanence. With the town hall, we can always have performances and classes here, and we can serve people from further Down East and keep prices low. With The Grand, we can earn some extra money and play to a wider audience. It’s a win-win.”
Raiten founded the NST in 1972, and in the 36 years since, he has directed every musical and play the company has produced, from “Lend Me a Tenor” to “Lost in Yonkers.”
This year, Raiten decided to get out of the director’s chair and let a few new faces take a seat. “On Golden Pond” is directed by Shari Johns, and the NST’s production of Peter Shaffer’s “Lettice and Lovage,” set for Feb. 20-March 14, will be directed by Cindy Robbins.
In addition to its plays and musicals, the NST offers a number of classes in acting, makeup, voice and choreography, taught by people like Maureen Robinson of the Robinson Ballet and Elena Bourakovsky, makeup and costume designer for the NST and the University of Maine. Johns and Robbins are recent graduates of the NST’s newest theater class, a directing course taught by Raiten. After seeing just what his students were capable of, he offered Johns and Robbins a chance to direct plays.
“This is new for us, and it’s very exciting,” said Raiten. “It gives us a lot of new energy and enthusiasm. It’s really wonderful to see how they bring out the characters in their actors.”
“I’ve taken lots of classes with Bill, but I never thought I’d actually direct a play,” said Robbins. “I did eventually take Bill’s directing class, and when the opportunity arose to direct this play, I thought, ‘Why not?’ and I jumped right in.”
Raiten firmly believes that a good director is, very often, a good actor. So Johns and Robbins, who have acted with the NST for a number of years, were perfect fits.
“We try hard to find actors that have lots of experience,” said Raiten. “We try to be as professionally grounded as possible. And an actor who has studied the craft and performed for years will just naturally be a better director.”
“On Golden Pond” worked for Shari Johns because of the close connection audiences have with Ethel and Norman, the show’s protagonists.
“It’s such a great show. It runs the full gamut of emotions, and the characters are so well-drawn,” said director Johns. “Norman and Ethel feel so familiar to us all.”
“It’s fun to play a lovable old curmudgeon,” said Charles Alexander, who plays Norman. “It’s fun to be grumpy.”
Peter Shaffer’s “Lettice and Lovage” is a story about a pair of wildly different English women, who develop a fast friendship in the midst of personal and professional upheaval. The play, written originally for actress Maggie Smith, is both wickedly funny and deeply affecting, and allows the two lead actresses — in this case Dindy Royston as the uptight Lotte and director Robbins as the flamboyant Lettice — to flaunt their skills.
“They’re quite a pair,” said Robbins. “I love the fact that it tells the story of an all-female theater troupe, and at the same time is a story about friendship. The characters are very strong and well-developed.”
“The most difficult job for a director is the casting,” said Raiten. “[Both Johns and Robbins] chose their actors so correctly and beautifully. I’m just so impressed with what they’ve done. It’s wonderful to watch them take on a job like this.”
After “On Golden Pond” and “Lettice and Lovage” finish up, Raiten himself takes a seat in the directing chair again for a production of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” After that, the NST begins in earnest working on its big summer production — Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera.”
One show at a time, though. Raiten loves Neil Simon because his plays, as funny as they are, are essentially meditations on basic human issues.
“It makes you see yourself, and it makes you laugh at yourself,” said Raiten. “Even if it can seem a little dated as far as the subject matter goes, the best comedy is timeless, because it speaks to the human condition.”
“On Golden Pond” will be performed at 7 p.m. Jan. 23 and 24 and Jan. 30, and at 3 p.m. Jan. 25 and 31 at The Grand theater in Ellsworth. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for students and seniors. “Lettice and Lovage” will be performed at 7 p.m. Feb. 20, 21, 27 and 28, and at 3 p.m. Feb. 22 at the Blue Hill Town Hall, and again at 7 p.m. March 6, 7, 13 and 14, and 3 p.m. March 8 at The Grand theater. “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” runs from April 3-May 3 at the Town Hall and The Grand. For more information, visit www.newsurrytheatre.org.