Ups, downs and ‘a community of friends’ celebrated during Penobscot Theatre’s 40th season

Penobscot Theatre Company exterior--photographed Tuesday, June 2, 2009. Maine Preservation has recognized the Penobscot Theatre Company for its restoration of the Bangor Opera House facade.
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Penobscot Theatre Company exterior--photographed Tuesday, June 2, 2009. Maine Preservation has recognized the Penobscot Theatre Company for its restoration of the Bangor Opera House facade. Buy Photo
Posted Aug. 20, 2013, at 11:56 a.m.
The exterior of the former Penobscot Theatre, located at 183 Main St. in Bangor, as seen in September 1983.
Carroll Hall
The exterior of the former Penobscot Theatre, located at 183 Main St. in Bangor, as seen in September 1983.
(Left to right) Bradley LaBree, Dominick Varney, Arthur Morison and Robin Bloodworth in &quotAround the World in 80 Days," opening this weekend at Penobscot Theatre Company.
Magnus Stark | Magnus Stark
(Left to right) Bradley LaBree, Dominick Varney, Arthur Morison and Robin Bloodworth in "Around the World in 80 Days," opening this weekend at Penobscot Theatre Company.
Ken Stack is King Lear and Leslie Michaud plays the Fool in Penobscot Theatre's production of &quotKing Lear."
Ken Stack is King Lear and Leslie Michaud plays the Fool in Penobscot Theatre's production of "King Lear." Buy Photo

The first show that Acadia Repertory Theater — eventually known as the Penobscot Theatre Company — produced during its inaugural year in Bangor in 1973 was “The School for Wives.” The 17th century comedy was written by French playwright Moliere. At that time, the new theater company had a summer season on Mt. Desert Island and a winter season in Bangor, and tickets were $1 for adults.

George Vafiades, one of the co-founders of the theater with Lou Collier, the theater’s artistic director for its first 10 years, recalled that first season — done on a tiny budget, with a cast of just four regular actors, for the love of theater and community.

“We did this thing on a shoestring,” said Vafiades, who now lives in Florida. “It was touch-and-go for the first few months, absolutely. In fact, we didn’t start to see any profit at all until 1977. That’s when people really started to know us. That’s when we were able to start doing really exciting work. Pretty neat for a community of 35,000.”

Penobscot Theatre marks 40 years of professional theatre in Bangor this year, and will kick off the celebration at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22, with a performance of a selection of scenes and songs from the six announced shows for 2013 and 2014, set for the Bangor Opera House. The first play of the season, the contemporary farce “The Fox on the Fairway,” opens the week of Sept. 5.

Producing artistic director Bari Newport promises a special surprise to be unveiled at the end of that night’s performances.

“The idea behind this whole season is that we are giving back to the community that has given us so much over the years,” said Newport, who is the sixth and current artistic director, following in the footsteps of Vafiades, Ken Stack, Joe Turner Cantu, Mark Torres and Scott R.C. Levy. “We’re celebrating all the things we’ve done and been through. It’s a thank-you to Bangor and the whole area.”

As expected, a lot has changed in 40 years. After that first decade of small, repertory shows, the theater split into two entities in 1983. The for-profit Acadia Repertory Theater, still helmed by Ken Stack, who was PTC’s artistic director from 1983 to 1988, stayed on MDI and still produces four plays each summer at the theater in Somesville.

The not-for-profit Penobscot Theatre now does six shows from September to June from the stage of the Bangor Opera House, the historic 325-seat theater the company purchased and moved into in 1998. Its original Bangor home was a block down the street at 183 Main St., which is now the site of a branch of People’s United Bank.

Stack, who also heads the entertainment production program at the New England School of Communications in Bangor, has one of the most wide-angle perspectives of anyone involved in theater in central and eastern Maine. He was last seen on the PTC stage in “Becky’s New Car” in the fall of 2012.

“One of the things that was unique about it from day one is that even though we started and built it very slowly, we weren’t just building an audience. We were building a group of friends,” said Stack. “It might sound a little hokey, but the support we have comes from a small community of friends that banded together to make it happen.”

Stack believes that the relationship PTC has with its audience is one that transcends something as simple as people merely buying a ticket and going to a show.

“There are patrons today that were coming to shows in 1974. That has continued through different directors and venues,” he said. “You get inducted into a group of friends, and you have this immediate connection to what’s happening onstage. I think there’s a sense of ownership of the theater that goes beyond just going to see a play. There’s very little separation between what goes on onstage and in the audience.”

PTC has had its share of challenges and hardships over the years, as many nonprofit arts organizations have. During the theater’s 30th year in 2003, the then-nine-year-old Shakespeare on the River, a popular summertime festival that was one of the first events to be held on the revitalized Bangor Waterfront, was axed due to budget constraints. In various years certain productions have had to be replaced or canceled outright because they cost too much.

But in the past four years, the theater has produced its three most popular, highest-grossing shows of all time: “Forever Plaid” in 2009 and “Always, Patsy Cline” and “Annie” in 2012. Despite the constant struggle to make ends meet, PTC is placed in a very good position in its 40th year, says Newport, thanks to some key support from the state and the community, including funding from the City of Bangor, grants from the Quimby Family Foundation and the Maine Arts Commission, and a huge new workshop in which to build sets.

“Now we have a 10,000-square-foot shop space, right in Bangor, donated by Larry Springer. It’s made a huge difference,” she said. “Because we can do all the work over there, we can do more shows in the same amount of time. We can make the season tighter. Things like that make all the difference.”

Vafiades encountered the same spirit of support back in 1973, when, as a newcomer to the Bangor area, he helped build the foundation of what was to come.

“There were naysayers. There were people who said, ‘I give you three months, max.’ They were almost right,” said Vafiades. “That very first year, I got in my car and drove to ten different businesses in Bangor and asked if they’d consider giving the theater $25 per week, and we’d set aside $25 worth of tickets for them. Ten out of 10 said yes, and they didn’t know me from Adam. That said to me that we have an unusual community. That said to me that this theater can continue and that it can thrive.”

Tickets to all Penobscot Theatre shows can be purchased by calling 942-3333, visiting penobscottheatre.org, or going to the PTC box office at the Bangor Opera House. The Bangor Daily News is a sponsor of PTC’s 2013-2014 season.

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