As festival season kicks off in earnest this month in Maine, there’s a new kid on the block, and this festival is a little different from any of the others in the state. For four days, starting this Thursday, downtown Portland will be overrun with performing artists of all stripes — from world-class choreographers to burlesque dancers, from theatrical premieres to experimental performance art. In its inaugural year the Portland Performing Arts Festival is coming out of the gate swinging.
“It occurred to all us [organizers] that there wasn’t a festival of this kind at the beginning of the summer that uses the performing arts as a means to draw people to town and create something exciting,” said Kara Larson, president of the festival’s board of directors. “Of course, once you realize that you start to try to figure out how to change that.”
Last year, Larson and a group of Portland artists and fundraisers began shaping what ended up being the PPAF, collaborating with organizations such as Portland Ovations, the Portland Conservatory of Music, Portland Stage, the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine and many others to create a critical mass of events. It’s mostly Maine performers, with a handful of high-caliber artists coming in from around the country.
Headlining performers include Grammy-winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, who will perform at the State Theatre at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 29, and jazz composer Doug Wamble, who with an 8-piece band will perform his masterwork “Yoknapatawpha,” based on William Faulkner’s writings, at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 30, also at the State Theatre.
There’s also Maine-based choreographer Alison Chase, who will unveil her newest work, “The Handsomest,” at Merrill Auditorium at 8 p.m on June 30, and the Celebration Barn Ensemble, out of South Paris, will twice perform “Thumbs Up!” a new play about Maine and all its characters, at 8 p.m. June 30 and 1 p.m. July 1 at the John Ford Theatre at Portland High School.
The long weekend will kick off with a performance art spectacular by Eepybird, a.k.a. the “Coke and Mentos guys,” who will do something amazing in Portland’s Monument Square at 6 p.m. June 28.
“We tried to have a broad appeal that also was challenging and interesting,” said Larson. “One of the things we’re really trying to do is create an opportunity for everybody. There’s a really rich arts landscape here, and the more we can get everyone together, the more everyone can benefit from it.”
To that end, the other major aspect of the PPAF is Port Fringe, a fringe festival that will begin on Tuesday, June 26, and run right alongside all the PPAF featured events until July 1. Fringe Festivals happen worldwide, from the famous ones in New York and Edinburgh to smaller ones in smaller cities. There are nearly 40 events included in Port Fringe, offered at multiple venues — Geno’s Rock Club, St. Lawrence Arts, the Children’s Museum, Mayo Street Arts and Lucid Stage — that cover a vast array of styles, themes and looks.
On a given night — say Saturday, June 30 — you could see a series of contemporary monologues, a puppet festival, a children’s ballet, a burlesque performance, experimental theater and a vaudeville-inspired one-woman show. There’s a new experimental musical from the Bowdoinham-based Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble, titled “Aquitania,” and there’s “Come On Over,” produced by the American Irish Repertory Ensemble,” a one-act play by Conor McPherson.
“That’s what a fringe festival is all about,” said Larson. “We’re so pleased at the response we’ve gotten from the Fringe. The full schedule has only been out for a few weeks, and we’ve already had amazing outreach. It’s an opportunity to say, ‘Yes, let’s have a puppet festival,’ or to have some really unique, edgy stuff that’s totally homegrown.”
The strength of the Maine-made art set to be performed during the festival is a testament to the vibrant arts scene in and around Portland, Larson believes.
“Portland has really emerged a kind of cultural mecca, a food mecca, a really exciting place to be,” she said. “There is a cultural landscape that was already here. We’re just celebrating it. This is an experiment. I can’t wait to see what happens.”
There are nearly 80 performances this week at the Portland Performing Arts Festival, both headlining and fringe. For a full list of all performances, visit the festival website, and visit the Fringe site. There are performances for both children and adults; be sure to check the listings for age-appropriateness. A pass for the entire event is $125; individuals days and events start at $10 and go up to $50.