It was in January of 2004, while he was cozied up in a cabin on Westport Island in Lincoln County, that Bill Raiten began to formulate what would become his one-man play. Raiten, founder of the Blue Hill-based New Surry Theatre, was on the island after receiving a fellowship from the Robert McNamara Foundation to write his memoirs.
“Those six weeks were heaven. It was wonderful. I remembered all these stories from my past,” said Raiten, 72, a New York City native who has lived in Blue Hill for more than 30 years. “These are stories I’ve been telling to everyone, all my life, about growing up in Brooklyn, about working on Broadway and meeting all these crazy characters, and then eventually coming to New England. These are the stories I tell all the time.”
After six weeks, he had a book — “A Brooklyn Sketchbook, Drawn From Memory” — but figured that was that. He had read some stories from the book for a few years at Blue Hill’s First Night New Year’s Eve event, but aside from that, the book laid unpublished and untouched.
“Then I read this article last year in the New York Times that storytelling is the hottest thing right now. There are these storytelling nights in New York, L.A., Chicago. People come out of the woodwork to tell their stories,” recalled Raiten. “I thought, ‘Jeez, I do that right now.’”
Over the course of the winter, Raiten boiled down his reams of stories into one show, which he’ll perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Blue Hill Town Hall. “A Stage Full of Stories: The Adventures of Bill Raiten” focuses on his childhood in Brooklyn, his early years on Broadway in the 1960s, and, finally, his move away from hectic city life to rural peace and quiet in the Caribbean, upstate New Hampshire and, later, Maine.
Raiten grew up the son of immigrants in the ethnically diverse Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. At age 20, Raiten was trying to make his mark doing stand-up comedy, but by his own admittance, wasn’t doing very well.
“I was a lot more interested in chasing girls than writing jokes,” he said. “But I knew I wanted to perform.”
Raiten fell in with the theater crowd, auditioning around town for shows and learning about acting from Lee Strasberg, who was director of the legendary Actor’s Studio in the 1950s and 60s. The hustle and bustle and cutthroat world of New York City theater burned Raiten out, however, and he also felt a longing to escape. He did so, first to the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis.
“I wanted to farm and be a Zen Buddhist,” said Raiten. “It was the start of my hippie phase.”
After three months, Raiten returned to the United States, and shortly afterward moved to an isolated farm with no electricity or running water in upstate New Hampshire. He spent many seasons farming, raising livestock and riding his horse to town, interspersed with trips to the city to work in theater, before Raiten decided to go further east, eventually landing in Surry. That was where in 1972 he founded the New Surry Theatre. The rest, as they say, is history, and that’s where Raiten’s play ends.
The urge to farm and to be in nature has never left Raiten — he and his wife, costume and makeup designer Elena Bourakovsky, maintain a large, fertile garden and several dozen chickens at their Blue Hill home.
But the desire to live and work in theater is equally as strong for him. In the nearly 40 years of classes the New Surry Theatre has offered to budding performers throughout eastern Maine, Raiten always has stressed some of the basic tenets of Strasberg’s method acting technique — albeit with his own unique twist.
“Drawing on your own experiences and emotions is an incredibly valuable tool for any actor,” he said. “It just doesn’t need to be this gut-wrenching, emotional experience. You can tap that kind of emotion without opening your soul up too much on stage. It’s hard to switch off your feelings when you’re remembering something really awful — especially when the next scene you’re in isn’t sad at all. It’s about being truthful.”
Being truthful — whether it’s relating a sad story or telling someone about a hilarious escapade you’ve been on — is what Raiten’s “Stage Full of Stories” is all about.
“These are stories I’ve told all the actors I’ve worked with for years and years,” he said. “I’m just telling the straight truth about my life.”