BLUE HILL, Maine — They’ve performed in Maine barns, Russian theaters, Hollywood halls and in just about every other kind of space suitable — and sometimes not — to their art.
Students have gone on to careers in Broadway and on television, while others return year after year, decade after decade to the “family” in rural, coastal Maine that helped them discover their love of the stage.
And on Friday evening, the New Surry Theatre will formally kick off its 40th year with the first of four productions. Set during the Spanish Inquisition, “Man of La Mancha” is the classic play-within-a-play about idealism and truth as author Miguel de Cervantes attempts to convince his fellow prisoners not to destroy the unfinished manuscript that would become “Don Quixote.”
“The story is over 400 years old and it still resonates with people,” said director Shari John.
The New Surry Theatre is, of course, much younger than that. But at 40 years old, it isn’t really “new” anymore nor, for that matter, does it regularly perform in Surry.
But the organization has not strayed far from those “community theater” roots, even when members performed around the globe and expanded the organization’s teaching mission.
“We are a performing arts theater and a school,” said Bill Raiten, co-founder of the New Surry Theatre and Performing Arts School and the current artistic director. “We believe that community theater can be as good as a professional production … if they study as well as the professional actors do.”
On a recent afternoon, Raiten sat with John and her husband, set designer Frank John, in the the upper level of Blue Hill’s historic town hall in the space that was renovated in 2007 by and for the theater company and has become its semipermanent home. The set for “Man of La Mancha” — a cold, stone 16th century Spanish prison — was nearly complete and rehearsals were in full swing after three to four months of preparation.
That lengthy preparation — versus three to four weeks for many other theaters — is one aspect that Raiten said has made New Surry Theatre unique and successful.
“It is hard to find people who can commit to three months or more,” Raiten said. “But the reason we do it is we know there is no other way to get to the truth of the character.”
Raiten was in his mid-30s when, in 1972, he and his acting partner from New York, Sheldon Bisberg, launched the New Surry Theatre and Performing Arts School. They performed 10 sold-out shows of “Fiddler on the Roof” in a barn in Surry that summer and, by the end of the second year, had 25 to 30 students from Maine and beyond.
A 1973 picture shows the cast and crew of the theater posing on the roof of The Grand theater in Ellsworth alongside the marquee announcing “Live Musical – Man of La Mancha.”
During the first two decades the theater expanded to year-round acting classes, summer camps and performances elsewhere in Maine as well as Canada. In the late 1980s, Raiten traveled to Leningrad in what was then still the U.S.S.R. to work as a guest director.
That trip later led to an invitation for 25 New Surry Theatre members to travel to the Soviet Union for a two-week “Performances for Peace” tour. The theater then hosted a group of Russian actors for performances in Maine, New York, Canada and California in the summer of 1990.
The theater took a break for several years while Raiten and others developed a program for at-risk youth called Theatre Art WORKS, which used performing arts and technology to nudge them back into school or into jobs. Raiten claims the program, which involved the youths in performing plays, had an 85 percent success rate.
In addition to acting, the school offers classes on choreography, makeup, playwriting and even stage fighting. Over the years, the theater/school has had students and actors as young as 7 years old and as mature as those in their 80s. And some have gone on to careers in show business.
“We don’t take credit for these kids because we feel like they give us more than we offer them,” said Raiten, who is 74. “And I call everyone a kid,” whether they are 10 or 70 years old.
Dindy Royster of Blue Hill described theater as “transforming” and, in her own case, she credits the self-confidence she gained at New Surry Theatre with giving her the will to go back and finish college.
Royster started with the theater as the parent of a student back in 1979 and has been involved ever since — as treasurer, development director and actress. And she will make her directorial debut later this year during the theater’s production of “Steel Magnolias.”
“It was just something that I wanted to do more and more and I was glad to be part of the process of keeping it going,” Royster said.
These days, Raiten leaves the directing to others because, as he put it one recent afternoon, “I’ve gotten old and tired.” But he still teaches classes and is like a proud father when he looks back on the past 40 years.
“Man of La Mancha” opens at 7 p.m. Friday, March 30. Additional performances will be staged at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 31; 3 p.m. Sunday, April 1; 7 p.m. April 12-14; 3 p.m. Sunday, April 15; and 7 p.m. April 19-21.
The theater will perform “Steel Magnolias” in June and the stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver” in late July through mid-August. The fourth, yet-to-be-scheduled production will be a performance of an original work from the playwriting class.
For more information, visit http://newsurrytheatre.org/.