OGUNQUIT, Maine — When the historic Ogunquit Playhouse was built 86 years ago as a seasonal summer theater, there were no sinks in the backstage bathrooms, no insulation in the building, and no zoning regulations in town. Only one of those things has changed in nearly a century.
Today, the Playhouse still has no sinks in the dressing room bathrooms, and no insulation, but it sits in five different town zones, none of which are compliant for the non-profit theater.
“When we hosted the Bushes, Barbara Bush poked her head out of the bathroom backstage and said, ‘Really? this is it?’ I had to hand her a bottle of Purell,” said Ogunquit Playhouse Executive Artistic Director Brad Kenney.
Question 5 on Ogunquit’s June 11 town ballot will create a new zone for the Playhouse, Shoreland General Development 3, which will bring the property into compliance, protect it as a non-profit performing arts theater into the future, and pave the way for a major renovation and expansion project. Over recent months, six public meetings were held to answer questions and meet the concerns of town officials and the community before the Select Board unanimously approved sending the proposed zoning change to voters at its April 16 board meeting.
Playhouse officials will hold two more public information sessions next week, at 10 a.m. on Thursday, June 6, and at 5 p.m. on Monday, June 10 to share information and field questions from residents prior to the vote. Those sessions will be held at the Ogunquit Playhouse.
“We welcome questions. We want to hear from people. We want to get the information out there to everyone,” said Kenney.
John Lane, former owner of the Playhouse, created the Ogunquit Playhouse Foundation and transferred ownership of the theater and grounds to the non-profit foundation in 1997 to ensure that it would survive as a summer theater. Lane died in 2000 and Kenney came onboard a few years later.
“The property needs to be zoned for the Playhouse to protect it for generations to come. It was handed to the Foundation from John Lane and he did the best he could to see that it would remain a playhouse. But if it ever left the Foundation, or the Foundation ceased to operate, whoever gets their hands on this property could do anything with it, unless this zoning passes and protects it,” Kenney said.
Kenney and Marketing Director Cheryl Farley have read the rumors circulating on social media — everything from expanding the buildings to cover the entire Playhouse property, to building a restaurant onsite. None are true, they say. While conceptual plans for the expansion have been shared, nothing is definite.
“People think it’s already designed and that they are voting for specific elements, which simply isn’t true. It’s just about zoning. We need the zoning change first, that’s all this is about,” Kenney said.
Kenney said Playhouse staff and the Foundation board began looking at stewardship of the theater several years ago, and started talking about “what we are going to leave behind for generations to come.”
“We did charrettes and we asked people what they want it to be and what will define it,” Kenney said.
The Playhouse’s new mission statement was born from those visioning sessions, as were the concepts for the expansion project.
“Building upon a legacy of leadership in American theatre, the Ogunquit Playhouse produces world-class performances, cultivates new works for the stage, and preserves an iconic and historic playhouse for future generations,” the mission statement reads.
Plans for the multi-million dollar expansion were shared with the Planning Board in January, when it was discovered that the Playhouse was non-compliant.
“We stopped everything at that point,” Kenney said. “We started working with (attorney) John Bannon, and met with the town and asked them what we needed to do. We asked them how do we protect the river and this historic building, and yet be compliant.”
The Ogunquit Playhouse Foundation board has been working on a strategic plan for the past several years, which includes updating and expanding facilities. Proposed upgrades will preserve the iconic front lawn and look of the Playhouse, while bringing much needed amenities and enhancements to theater.
Upgrades include ADA requirements and basic life and safety standards, Kenney said. Currently, there are no sinks in the restrooms backstage, the “tight” lobby offers no restroom facilities for someone in a wheelchair without having to go outdoors, and the Playhouse’s housing facilities are aging rapidly and there are not enough of them to house actors.
Plans also currently include returning a fly tower to the Playhouse, Kenney said, that is estimated at 85 feet in height. The original fly tower, which allows scenery and backdrops to “fly” up and be quickly changed during shows was destroyed in a hurricane in 1950.
Kenney said the plans would incorporate the historic scene shop located toward the back of the property.
“We are visioning taking this historic scene shop, which has been signed by set designers over the years, many of whom moved on to incredible careers on Broadway, and we want to lift it up and adjoin it to the playhouse as part of the master plan to enhance the audience experience,” Kenney said. “We feel passionately about preserving this.”
Farley said the zoning change is critical to the survival of the Playhouse.
“If these improvements can’t be made, the potential for the theater to decline is great,” she said. “It was built as a leading American theater by a prominent Broadway producer. It deserves to be a state-of-the-art theater. It was always run and owned by innovative and extraordinary leaders in the theater, and that’s its legacy,” she said.
“She’s one of the most beloved theater buildings in the world, not in the county, but the world,” Kenney said. “The historic artistic heritage is second to none. We need to restore her to the caliber she once was.”
The proposed zoning ordinance change will appear as Question 5 on the town warrant for voters on Tuesday, June 11. Voting will take place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Dunaway Center on School Street.