PORTLAND, Maine — Mayo Street Arts is a mess. Construction tools and painting supplies are stacked all over its cozy stage. Rows of seats stand askew and dusty in the house.
The Bayside performance venue went dark at the start of the pandemic, 16 months ago. It hasn’t hosted a live performance since then and it shows. But just because it has been dark and untidy doesn’t mean the folks running it have been sleeping.
The nonprofit arts organization is actually bristling with a slew of new community-centered outreach programs aimed at digging deeper into its own diverse, multicultural and multilingual neighborhood. Instead of inviting the neighbors inside for a show, it’s focused on bringing a diverse set of arts and artists outside, directly to the surrounding community.
Outreach and events this summer include an immigrant-centered parade, a play mounted at a nearby coffee roaster and an art program at a local childrens’ day camp.
“We’re in what’s traditionally been a low-income, low-opportunity neighborhood,” Executive Director Ian Bannon said. “What we’re doing is a needed service, and we need it right now, too, to rebuild and reengage.”
Mayo Street Arts sits in East Bayside, on the edge of Kennedy Park. At only 60 percent white, the 1960s-era public housing project is the most diverse neighborhood in the city, according to the 2010 census. Maine, as a whole, was 94 percent white in the same survey. Many families originally from Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Iraq and several central African countries call East Bayside home, according to a 2010 city report.
Engaging directly with locals, Mayo Street has sent artists to help with The Root Cellar’s summer day camp for neighborhood kids. The Root Cellar is a long-standing, local community-building nonprofit based on Washington Avenue.
“Students are exploring puppetry, theater, poetry, dance and drumming,” Bannon said.
Other Mayo Street-organized events include performances of “The Aliens” at nearby Tandem Coffee Roasters. The play explores issues of social isolation and masculinity in the wake of the pandemic and counterprotests sparked by George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota. In September, Mayo Street will host the world-famous Bread and Puppet Circus at Fort Allen Park on Munjoy Hill. All of the events are free or pay what you can.
Efforts to elevate local arts and culture go beyond live performances, as well.
In June, Mayo Street received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create the Traditional Arts Network. The network will help traditional artists — who are newcomers to Maine — preserve and share their artistic and cultural practices in New England.
The pilot year of the project will focus on the Rwandan, Congolese, Burundian, Somali and Somali Bantu communities in Portland and Lewiston. The network will pool resources, offering support in marketing, grant writing, video production and access to rehearsal space.
Maurice Habimfura of the traditional Rwandan drumming & dance group Ikirenga cy’Intore is on the artist advisory committee for the new network. Habimfura said Mayo Street helped him find his artistic footing when he was a newcomer in town.
“When I first came to Portland in 2014, Mayo Street was the only place we could perform,” he said. “Now we are about to perform at Merrill Auditorium with a group from Burundi on Sept. 4 for about 2,000 people. But we still consider Mayo Street to be our home.”
An upcoming Mayo Street program slated for the fall will help local mothers learn English while their children are in school. Then, when classes get out in the afternoon, the children will join in, making it a family learning affair.
In getting organized, for the array of events and programs, Bannon reckons he’s talked with every single business and organization in Bayside and on Munjoy Hill.
“That’s why I have bags under my eyes,” said Bannon, who took over the executive director job on May 1.
Prior to that, he was Mayo Street’s program director. Bannon also worked at the Celebration Barn Theater in South Paris and Figures of Speech Theater in Freeport before that.
Bannon goes out of his way to give much credit to Blainor McGough, his predecessor and founder of the organization, for paving the way to what he’s trying to do now.
One of McGough’s last acts as director was to recruit local performer and dance teacher Veeva Banga to serve on Mayo Street’s board of directors. Banga, 21, was born in South Sudan, came to Portland when she was 5 years old and joined Mayo Street’s youth dance classes at age 12.
Serving as the board’s community cultural liaison, Banga’s experience adds valuable perspective and knowledge to the organization’s underpinnings. She said she feels it’s important to give back to the organization and neighborhood that nurtured her art.
“Mayo Street kind of created my love for the arts,” she said. “That’s where it all started for me.”
To facilitate Mayo Street’s web of events and projects, Mayo Street is hiring a part-time community outreach staff member and a full-time program manager. It already recently added an advancement and communications manager.
Bannon said preference will be given to candidates who can speak French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, or Lingala.
“I want someone from this neighborhood,” he said. “I’m acutely aware that I’m a white, hetero, cisgendered, middle-aged guy with only rudimentary French.”