BELFAST, Maine — For a quarter century, people living in this small midcoast city have looked to the Belfast Maskers to entertain them and give them a chance to participate in a busy community theater program.
That will change on Jan. 1, when the Maskers — a group that lost its dedicated theater building on Front Street more than a year ago — will join forces with a long-shelved theater group called Cold Comfort Productions. Together, the troupes will take the show on the road in a big way, according to longtime Maskers artistic director Aynne Ames, who founded Cold Comfort Productions more than 20 years ago in Castine.
Actors will perform their plays and musicals in communities that have theaters but no theater companies, including Castine, Searsport, Islesboro and Bucksport. They also will perform each show somewhere in Belfast, Ames said.
She and others hope the change will give new life to the Maskers organization and its volunteers.
“When they lost the building, they really lost heart,” she said. “It was like a church without a congregation.”
The theater company’s former home was owned by the city of Belfast and leased to the theater group. More than a year ago, city officials said that the Maskers would have to perform elsewhere because the insurance company no longer would insure the theater, which was built to be the freight house for the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad.
When and if the Maskers get a long-dreamed-of performing arts facility to be its home, the group can “revive again,” Ames said. Until then — or at least for the next year — Cold Comfort Productions will produce the shows and the Belfast Maskers will lend theater assets such as costumes, set pieces and lighting. After a year, the two separate boards of directors will see if the collaboration is still working, she said.
“The board of the Maskers needed to find a new model to survive,” she said. “It’s a fresh start. It’ll give the Maskers time to re-energize and look at some different models.”
Chip Curry, the president of the Maskers’ board of directors, said that he was asked at the organization’s recent annual meeting if the change meant the “death of the Maskers.”
“It’s all of our resources, and it’s our director,” he said. “How can you say it’s not the Maskers? The Maskers isn’t leaving. It’s our effort to pursue the mission in the best way we can, creating high-quality live theater in Belfast.”
He said that partnering with Cold Comfort and taking the shows around the region will mean that the Maskers will increase their audience and potential donors.
“We’re already a traveling theater. We’re forced to be,” he said. “We’re an active theater with no active space, in Belfast. Most other towns have the opposite problem.”
Some elements of the Maskers will remain the same, including the types of shows performed and the summer theater camp, which will continue to be held in 2013 as usual. However, college theater interns probably won’t return next summer, Ames said.
Curry said that the Maskers organization has some debt, which mostly is owed to the Basil Burwell Foundation, a group created to support community theater in the area. In the last decade, the Maskers had trouble meeting operating costs and had to seek loans from the foundation to stay in business, he said.
“It was dramatically affected by the recession. If you look at our financial charts, things just go south in 2009,” Curry said. “If you bleed $3,000 every year, it’s a problem.”
Lilias Outerbridge serves on the board of the Basil Burwell Foundation and also is the board president emeritus of the Maskers.
“The foundation will help make sure the Maskers debts get paid in full. The Maskers is not going to go bankrupt. Everybody can be sure of that,” she said Monday.
According to information provided by the website guidestar.com, in 2011 the Maskers reported more than $25,000 to the IRS in net debt.
“Community theater will continue in Belfast, and the Maskers will find its own way, which will be a new way without a building and with a changing community,” Outerbridge said. “It’s not just that we lost the building, but Belfast is such a lively community with so much going on — I think all volunteers get stretched.”