Jason Bannister subscribes to the “Why not?” philosophy when it comes to the arts. Why can’t you start a performing arts curriculum at a middle school? Why can’t you make movies with community members? Why can’t you just form a theater group and produce a play?
Bannister, 35, did all those things — the last of which, the Mid Coast Actors Studio, will have its debut production open this weekend when a cast of seven performs Henrik Ibsen’s iconic 1890s play “Hedda Gabler” at the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast. Bannister’s spent the last five years immersing himself in the midcoast arts scene, from directing plays and musicals in Belfast schools, to performing with the Belfast Maskers, to shooting and editing movies with a variety of area performers. A theater group seemed to him to be the next logical step.
“It’s always been my dream to start my own theater group,” said Bannister, who by day is the performing arts teacher at Troy Howard, a position newly created this year. “I did it already in high school and college, but now, as an adult, I’ve got the bug again. I love being a part of the whole creative process of theater. I can’t resist it.”
Bannister and a group of midcoast actors and theater artists — including his wife, Danielle Bannister, and longtime area theatrical designers and directors John and Elaine Bielenberg — founded the Mid Coast Actors Studio early this year with the intent of providing a place for established actors to perform classic plays. The works of playwrights such as Ibsen, August Strindberg, George Bernard Shaw and Luigi Pirandello remain powerful and relevant — and are also in the public domain, meaning the MCAS doesn’t have to pay royalties.
“We’re definitely on a shoestring budget, but that also forces us to get creative and to really delve into all those classics of theater, that get performed pretty rarely these days,” said Bannister, a Lewiston native and graduate of the University of Southern Maine theater program. “They’re incredibly moving and deep plays, of course, and they’re really rewarding for actors to get into.”
In MCAS’s “Hedda Gabler,” Marie Merrifield takes on the title role, playing one of the great dramatic characters in the history of theater: the sometimes passionate and outspoken, sometimes cold and calculating Hedda, who has been referred to as “the female Hamlet.” Hedda is dissatisfied with her husband, Jorgen Tesman (Erik Perkins), and bored with her life. Enter Elvert (Bannister), Hedda’s former love, turning everyone’s lives upside down. Christine West, Jay Rosenberg, Katie Glessner and Amy Pillitteri round out the cast; Elaine Bielenberg designed costumes and John Bielenberg designed the set.
“We’re a little unusual in that we don’t audition. We want to work with people we know are established actors and have those acting chops,” said Bannister.
There may be a bit of a learning curve for some audiences — a four-act 19th century drama written with old-fashioned dialogue requires a different set of listening and watching skills than does a contemporary two-act play with 21st century rhythms. But Bannister hopes that the MCAS can be an educational tool, as well as an outlet for the acting talent in the midcoast and beyond.
The Mid Coast Actors Studio production of “Hedda Gabler” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday, May 25 and 26, and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 27, at Troy Howard Middle School; suggested donation is $10. There will also be two performances, at 7 p.m. June 1 and 2, at the Camden Public Library. For information, visit midcoastactors.org.