EASTPORT, Maine — Twenty years ago, a group of theater buffs were looking for a rural, isolated, undeveloped area in which to start a community theater. They had grant money, expertise and a passion to bring theater to underserved populations.
“They asked the Maine Arts Commission about Eastport,” Joyce Weber recalled. “They were told not to bother coming here, that there was nothing here.”
Luckily, the actors didn’t listen, and two decades later, the theater they founded, Stage East, is still going strong: three shows a year, dozens of volunteers and residents who come out to support community theater.
The founding group was from Washington, D.C., and was called Cornerstone.
“We were their 13th residency,” Weber, who is a member of Stage East’s board of directors, recalled recently. “Thirteen people showed up on a Saturday. They went to all the bars Saturday night and all the churches Sunday morning and by Sunday night, 80 people turned out to audition for the first show, ‘Pier Gynt,’” adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.”
Cornerstone took an empty building — the former Masonic Hall — and built a stage and bleachers and added lighting and sound systems, all of which they left behind for Stage East to use.
One of the original Cornerstone actors was Amy Brenneman, who went on to star in the television show “Judging Amy.”
“They were an extraordinary group of people,” Weber said. “They had such a love of theater. They believed that community theater should reflect the community and its lives.”
Today, Stage East and its host organization, the Eastport Arts Center, have a healthy budget, which is augmented through Maine Arts Commission grants.
The secret to its success, the members said, is community involvement.
“Live performance is a fabulous thing,” board member Valerie Lawson said. “People gather and share this wonderful experience.”
“Community theater involves people,” Weber said. “It shows them, rather than tells them, and in a most intimate way. The best way to learn any art form is to do it. Live theater has a great following in Washington County.”
To celebrate the theater’s 20th anniversary, the board decided to make it more visible, Michaelynn Cecire, another board member, said. “We are hosting monthly lectures on theater by experts and, of course, performing plays,” she said.
Lawson said the board also is creating a five-year plan for the arts in Eastport.
The current production is “The Late Christopher Bean,” a Down East comedy. It will be showing until Aug. 8.
The members say that without volunteers in a variety of roles — onstage and off —plays would not be possible.
“In this production, at lease a dozen people are helping put on the play,” board member Chris Grannis said. “We borrow props, furniture, costumes.” Grannis said productions take six weeks of preparation but “it would really be nice to have more time.”
The actors and behind-the-scenes helpers represent a wide range of full-time occupations: artists, health care workers, artistic directors, high school seniors, musicians and teachers.
“We are excited to still be here after 20 years,” Cecire said. She said that Stage East was the first community theater in Washington County, but it has company in several other groups now, including Downriver Theatre Company in Machias, The Magnificent Liars in Pembroke, the Lubec Players, the New Calais Theater and the St. Croix Theatre Company in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, which often visits Eastport.
A 20th anniversary reception for Stage East will be held 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 21, at the Eastport Arts Center.
“The Late Christopher Bean” will be performed at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 8.
Information about performances can be obtained by calling the box office at 853-4650 or visiting www.stageeast.org.