For the fourth season of the Belfast Maskers outdoor performances, the stage finally is set for a glitch-free summer. At least, that’s what Aynne Ames hopes. Meteorological issues are out of her control.
“Oh God, last year it rained and rained and rained,” said the artistic director for the Maskers of their 10-day-long summer 2009 production of the musical “Oliver!” “There’s nothing you can do about that, though. Theater is a risk. Everything is a risk. That’s what makes it fun. But what we could do is make the space we have to work with a lot better.”
For “Picnic,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by William Inge which will premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 1, the Maskers actors and crew will take the stage on a sturdy new outdoor performance space, for which construction finished last weekend. Belfast resident John Bielenberg, professor emeritus of theater at Binghamton University of New York and a master carpenter, designed the stage for the Maskers and for the community in general to use for outdoor performances of all stripes during the warmer months.
Bielenberg saw how difficult it had been for the Maskers to put together their three previous outdoor summer shows — “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2007, “Carousel” in 2008 and “Oliver!” in 2009 — and sought a way to provide the Maskers and the community with a sturdy, reliable outdoor stage.
“[The previous stages] had been spread out over 100 feet, and the sightlines and sound were not good,” said Bielenberg. “I was chairman of the Maskers board at that time, and I knew something had to be done before another summer came.”
Bielenberg approached the park commission, which approved a measure to allow a new stage to be constructed in Steamboat Landing Park. The city of Belfast also installed much better, stronger power sources for lights, sound and other electrical needs. Several thousand dollars-worth of grants were received from the Davis Family Foundation and the Hut Foundation for the project. Late last week, the stage was put up in the park, where it will remain until the fall.
For the past two months, Bielenberg has been working on the stage with the help of a few volunteers.
“It’s been in my driveway for a long time,” he said. “It’s sort of an Elizabethan style. I was following the idea of the stage at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. They do everything on that stage, with little alteration. That’s what the Maskers needed — not to have to create a new stage and theater every time they do a production. They start from scratch each year.”
For the first time, the Maskers are doing two productions this summer. “Picnic” is a 1950s play dealing with a small Kansas town and what happens when a handsome drifter arrives on the morning of the Labor Day picnic. Though the play is rooted in ’50s morality and social norms, the design of the production reflects more contemporary society.
“There are certain things that bring it up to today, so that it doesn’t seem like this relic of another era,” said Ames. “The set design is very modern, and the female lead is a little more experienced and sultry than you might expect from reading the play. It’s a mix of both. It’s a summer romance.”
After “Picnic,” the Maskers will offer up Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “Cinderella,” based on the 1957 teleplay starring Julie Andrews. The previous outdoor summer productions have brought up to 250 people to the Belfast waterfront, and Ames hopes to repeat that again this summer.
“This time, we have two productions for the entire month of July,” said Ames. “It’s an economic boon for downtown, because those people come to eat and drink and shop, in addition to seeing a show.”
Fortunately for the Maskers, this weekend’s forecast appears to be clear, with highs in the mid-70s and clear skies right through Sunday.
“You know, I hate it when people say there’s a 40 percent chance of rain,” said Ames. “That means there’s a 60 percent chance of no rain. Those aren’t bad odds.”
“Picnic” is set for 7 p.m. July 1-3 and 8-10, and for 2 p.m. July 4 and 11, on the new stage in Steamboat Landing Park. “Cinderella” will be performed at 7 p.m. for 10 consecutive nights, July 22-31, also on the new stage. Adult tickets for “Picnic” are $15, $20 for Cinderella; all teen tickets are $10, and children under 12 cost $5. For information, visit www.belfastmaskers.com.