SOUTH PARIS, Maine — Hanging from the wooden rafters are masks of monkeys, jesters, birds and sages. Nearby a rack of colorful womens’ dresses await their next scene. In former horse stalls props like fishbowls, canes and capes are stashed behind curtains.
Most barns harbor stories and secrets, and exude a particular character. At Celebration Barn Theater these attributes take on a center stage magic.
For the last 43 years, the former race horse stable has been home to Maine’s internationally known immersive physical theater training and performance space.
Since its 1972 inception by world-class mime artist Tony Montanaro, multitudes of students have traveled to the hidden barn in Oxford County for the solace and inspiration of improv under the 1902 rafters. In its earliest stages the deal was simple: Come to Maine and help rebuild the dilapidated barn in exchange for classes by the master.
Floors were laid by past performers, toolmarks from the barn’s 1900 builders still dent the rafters, but in its flaws lay its charm.
“The history here is a big thing,” Thom Wall, a Cirque du Soleil juggler fresh from a gig on a cruise ship in Alaska, said. To the full-time entertainer from Vermont, the theater set in a stunning apple orchard “is different from a performing arts center where they have bleached floors and fluorescent lights. Here the focal point is the work.”
The scuffed floors and shopworn wooden walls attest to the warmth and creativity of all who’ve passed through here.
“Dancing with the Stars” host Tom Bergeron and energetic harp player Deborah Henson-Conant, are just two Celebration Barn successes. “We’ve had performers in everything from the circus to TV to musicals,” artistic director Amanda Huotari said. “It’s a real laboratory for people to come and focus.”
Huotari, who grew up down the road and purchased the nonprofit theater in 2007, started taking classes here at 13. On a tour of the three-story barn last week, she put its spell into perspective.
“For the artists to come here and create, it takes away all the pretension,” she said, as natural light streamed in and a screen door slammed. “It really is a barn. Not a theater built to look like a barn.”
Inside the 40 foot by 100 foot barn students come for a week, or longer. They stay in dorms — simple bunk rooms — built into the barn’s eves. The stage, one flight below, is where the action is.
This summer the barn welcomed students from seven countries and audiences from across the state. “We are celebrating happiness in the performance,” Huotari said. “Our constant reinvention is not static. We are empowering performers to come and create their own path.”
Unlike when Montanaro found it, the barn exudes strength.
There’s a shiny new roof and the cupola has been restored. New siding, heating and cooling units have been added in the last five years.
And there’s more to come. Next year Huotari will launch a campaign to prep the barn for year-round programming.
“This barn is here to stay,” she said. “Renovations will allow for us to extend the season of performances, workshops and residencies and attract even greater number of artists and audiences to western Maine.”