Behind the magic at Maine State Music Theatre

Posted July 24, 2014, at 3:42 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Another opening, another show.

When the curtain rises at the Pickard Theater and the first upbeat note of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” echos through the room, guests seated in air-conditioned comfort are treated to a night of Broadway-style entertainment complete with backflips, a live orchestra and three-part harmonies.

Maine State Music Theatre fills hot summer nights with song, suspense, tapping feet and the relief of comedy while introducing generations of tourists and locals to the power of live theater.

Besides the countless shows this summer stock has performed since 1959, there is a story that seldom makes the spotlight: the flurry of production work unfolding on the other side of the curtain.

For 56 seasons, prop makers, set designers, wardrobe artists, seamstresses and technical directors from across the country have flocked to Brunswick to fill the footlights with four full-scale shows.

An old Studebaker dealership downtown is their home for 12 weeks. Inside the soaring space, a network of rooms buzz with power drills, pianos and dancers and the click-clack of sewing machines.

Every inch of every show is crafted in this space.

“On one magical day in May we go from seven employees to 155,” said Curt Dale Clark, MSMT’s artistic director. “From a business perspective it is very scary.”

Because the theater rents their stage from Bowdoin College for this short span, they have a finite amount of time to go from striking the set to curtain up for the nine shows and 107 performances they produce each summer — exactly 72 hours between productions.

The musicals are selected ahead of time, but actors don’t rehearse together until they arrive in Brunswick. Rehearsal for one show begins while the other is being staged. There is some overlap from show to show, but some actors swoop in for an act or two.

“This means they are doing a lot of work on their own, going home and studying,” said Clark. “It makes your head spin.”

And puts a tremendous amount of pressure on not only the actors, but the production crew.

To make it happen, they rely on pros like Leo Stagg.

The technical director returned to MSMT for his sixth summer this year. Like many in the crew who forgo afternoons lolling on the beach, he works 80-hour weeks with one day off to rest. Starting here as an apprentice, the 24-year-old is now running the department and building original sets by hand.

While the current show is running he has 12 days to go from scratch to stage-ready installation. How does he do it?

“You can’t second-guess your decisions. You have to trust yourself and others around you to work quickly and safely,” said Stagg, poring over architectural renderings for “Footloose” this week, which opens Aug. 6th.

To make sure the Douglas fir trees of 1850’s Oregon clear the stage with precision in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” he relies on his colleagues of journeymen, apprentices and interns, who all share a love and belief in live theater.

“It has to happen the same way every night, but it’s fresh every night,” says Stagg, who returns each summer because of the “caliber of artists here who are passionate about their work. It’s a lot more important who I’m working with than where.”

Colin Whitely shares the sentiment.

The University of Southern Maine graduate is in his eighth season here and runs the sound department. His challenge may be even tougher. Whitely, 27, has five hours in the theater to orchestrate all audio, including live sound effects and balancing scores.

For a resident company specializing in musicals, this is crucial.

“It’s amazing that we pull it off in such a short time,” he said.

Each show ushers in new musicians and new musical directors, leaving precious little time to be off key. “My job happens in two days,” said the Long Island native, chatting breezily in the theater office this week as he went over his notes for the next show.

“In two weeks we will have a new audience,” and a musical score that shifts from the folksy “Goin’ Courtin” to cutting “Footloose” ‘80s-rock style, he said.

“You don’t think about it, you just do it,” said Whitely, who returns to New York City at the end of August.

Without the all-hands collaborative focus and consistency of Stagg, Whitely and MSMT Production Manager Chuck Kading, “this would be 10 times more difficult,” said Clark.

“We are a family, a community and everyone works together. Without that there is no way this would happen,” said Clark, who started at the theater eight years ago as an actor.

And for actors and dancers, some of whom rehearse for a new show during the day and assume their roles in the live show by night, such toggling can be tough. “Not everyone makes it,” said Clark.

But those that do are introducing new audiences to an affordable alternative to Broadway.

“For the kids, live theater is new. We want to show them that video and TV can’t possibly capture the visceral feeling of live theater,” said Clark.

Even for seasoned vets like Barbara Whidden, development director at MSMT for a decade, to see these shows come together at break-neck speed “is still fascinating to watch. It comes down to ownership.”

And the bond that’s formed working in the trenches, away from the glamorous spotlight.

“We are all friends, which makes the job easier,” said Whitely. “We keep coming back for each other.”