By David M. Fitzpatrick
Of The Weekly Staff
Six years ago, two high schoolers had a dream. Alexandria “Lexi” Marceron, a junior, and James Bartol, a sophomore, approached Marceron’s parents with an ambitious goal: Create a community arts center for children of all ages and financial means — not just for a two-week summer camp, but for ongoing sessions all year long.
“Ever since they were small children, there was no place in the area where you could do a year-round theater class,” said Lexi’s mother, Tracey Marceron.
With many arts classes in the area not affordable by most, Lexi and James wanted the center’s offerings available to all kids at any financial level.
Marceron understood. As a child, she had enjoyed theater outings in the Washington, D.C., area with her mother, and she began taking Lexi to New York City to take in musicals when her daughter was 8.
Marceron soon purchased a building on Center Street in Brewer to launch the Between Friends Art Center and the Next Generation Theatre and got a $50,000 loan to fix the roof, the building’s most pressing issue. But the whole place was in rough shape and needed work from top to bottom.
Yet Marceron knew it was the right spot.
“The building had a great vibe about it,” she said. “This building just made me feel like it wanted to hear kids’ laughter, singing, people having fun.”
Marceron and the kids planned to do as much work as they could, but then something special happened: Some tradesmen — a carpenter, a plumber, a roofer, a painter — offered their labor at a greatly reduced rate. Those experts stretched that $50,000 into a top-to-bottom renovation: roof, windows, siding, floors, ceilings. The tradesmen also furnished the theater and built the dance studio, kitchen and bathroom.
“It was really a miracle,” Marceron said. “They came out of nowhere, and… they were doing it to give back to the community.”
A Star Factory Is Born
The first session was six or seven children whom Lexi and James corralled from families they knew, but the numbers grew quickly with subsequent sessions.
The theater has three age groups: elementary school, middle school and high school. High-school kids can also be directors, leading the productions at all age groups. Yet they’re still kids, so the younger kids relate well to them.
“It’s kind of a magic formula that we didn’t think out or plan,” said Marceron.
It often seems like magic that the bills get paid. Funding comes from tuition for students to participate in theater or dance and from money that the gift shop and concessions stand earn. But the expenses are high; Marceron is looking into establishing the arts center as a nonprofit organization, to open it to applying for grants and so the center won’t pay taxes on donated funds.
But it’s expensive to run, especially since some students can afford only a portion of the tuition — and sometimes none at all. There have been sessions where half the children could pay nothing, but the show always goes on.
Expenses come in other forms. For example, the upstairs dance studio currently has more than 100 students learning dance styles including tap, ballet, hip hop, jazz, contemporary and musical theater. But since the theater capacity is just 127, Marceron has to rent another facility for dance recitals.
The project makes no money, and any profits from theater shows pay the teen directors, which Marceron says is fair.
“I am not only training them, but I am benefiting from them not going out and getting that job at McDonald’s — keeping their schedule open so that they can be here,” she said.
Many students have gone on to success in the performing arts. Lexi, who attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, is working her way toward Broadway. James graduated from NYU with a double major in filmmaking and set design. Former choreographer Rachel Caron now tours with The Young Americans.
“If you’re a theater kid, you live for theater,” said Marceron. “You are wanting to know the day that the [current] show ends what is the next show, when are the auditions, what’s my part going to be, when can I start learning my lines.”
But if kids don’t get the chance, they might never know what they’re missing.
“If you’re never given the opportunity to be in a show, or to feel like what it feels like to be on stage and hear the clapping and [see] the smiles and [feel] the adoration you get from being in a show and doing a good job, how will you ever know if that’s where you fit in?” Marceron said.
Sydney Albert, 9, was at the theater recently to audition for “The Jungle Book” and “Aladdin.” At her age, she’s on the cusp of both the younger and older programs and eligible for both. She loves being the center of attention, and she’s eager to be involved. She was in “The Ugly Duckling” when she was very young and recently played a rock lobster in “Alice in Wonderland.” She’s working hard to earn a major role.
“It doesn’t really matter as long as I get a part, but I think I need a big part,” she said.
Stephanie Colavito of Holden, the theater’s senior director, is a junior at John Bapst Memorial High School. She moved here from New York at age 12, and she and a friend looked for a children’s theater. They never thought they’d find such a great place.
“We were absolutely blown away,” she said. “It was totally different from anything we’d ever seen. Everyone was so friendly. It was a good atmosphere to be in.”
Colavito, who has performed since age 5 and plans on pursuing the performing arts in college, says the collaboration of younger and older kids at NGT is invaluable.
“The teens who direct are not really like super-tough,” she said. “We try to make it a big family, like it’s a community effort. I think that’s what’s really unique.”
Alekzander Sayers knows about that.He was an NGT director while in high school, and now he’s studying acting at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla. He remembers when he was first hooked after a performance.
“I bowed, and I just heard this roar of applause,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh — I can’t live without this.’ That was my eureka moment where I decided this was what I wanted to do.”
Not every kid wants a career in the performing art. Molly Picone, a Bangor High School freshman, has been the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland” and the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” but isn’t planning a theater career. But she does plan on a career that will afford her the freedom to do theater on the side. She’s the first to speak up for the NGT.
“It teaches all the kids everything that they need to know early on in life,” Picone said. “It’s so important because it creates families and teaches them confidence and all of that stuff. I love it here.”
To learn more about the theater, dance and arts classes offered at Between Friends Arts Center, visit NextGenerationTheatre.com.