BELFAST, Maine — In recent years, Belfast has been a community theater hotbed, with four separate companies calling the small midcoast city home. But now, after nearly two years of the coronavirus pandemic canceling performances and shrinking audiences, there is one less.
The 10-year-old Midcoast Theater Company — formerly the Midcoast Actors’ Studio — is going on hiatus, with no clear plan of what the future might bring.
“I feel a little sad,” Jason Bannister, the founder and artistic director of the theater company said Monday. “And a definite relief that I have my time back.”
For Bannister, 44, the impetus to create his own theater company came when the Belfast Maskers, the city’s longest-running community theater troupe, was in a time of flux.
“I started it because the Maskers had lost their space, and had lost their artistic director,” he said. “It left a kind of vacuum. And it worked, for a while.”
Bannister has a deep-seated love of theater. By day, he teaches theater and directs shows at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast. He also directs shows at Belfast Area High School.
For the new company, he set a specific goal: to produce quality shows and operate high-caliber classes and workshops. From the beginning, that’s what happened. The first-ever production was a thoughtful performance of 19th century playwright Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece “Hedda Gabler,” which set the bar high. In the 30 or so shows since then, including searing 2018 productions of “Cabaret” and “The Crucible,” the company has continued to reach that bar.
“I think it’s been an amazing addition, because Jason just has a different cultural perspective on theater,” Elaine Bielenberg, a costume designer who retired to Belfast and serves on the board of the Midcoast Theater Company, said. “We’ve picked up some very challenging shows, and had some amazing casts.”
But the theater company lacked a permanent home, instead staging shows in various rented locations around the community.
The group used the Crosby Center as a home base for a while, but that didn’t work out on a long term basis, Bannister said. In 2019, he was in talks with Waldo County officials to rent the former Waldo County Superior Courthouse as a home for the theater company. He even sought and received grants that would help convert the courtroom into a theater space, but ultimately, the deal did not go through.
“It’s pretty hard to run a theater company without a dedicated space,” Bannister said. “That’s what it comes down to. It’s difficult for your audience base to know where you’re going to be.”
The pandemic didn’t make anything easier.
“We weren’t able to perform, just like everyone else,” he said.
The group pivoted, doing radio shows, which “were kind of fun and different,” he said. By this summer, they were trying to get back to normal but the Delta variant cast a shadow over the production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
“It really hurt our ticket sales,” Bannister said. “It’s been a decade of a constantly uphill battle. Trying to find a space. Trying to find people to get involved. Trying to find an audience base.”
Meanwhile, the Belfast Maskers had regrouped and found a permanent home in a former church on Court Street that they’ve transformed into the Basil Burwell Community Theater.
“They’re back on their feet now,” Bannister said. “I stand by them and support them.”
That makes it a little easier to take a break from the Midcoast Theater Company, he said. He will keep the organization’s non-profit status and plans to run the group’s youth theater camp in the summer. And is not opposed to the idea of letting someone else mount a production in the future.
Otherwise, though, he’s looking forward to just watching shows, or acting in them.
“When you have something you really love doing, and it’s a constant battle to make it happen … it doesn’t become something you love. It becomes kind of a chore,” Bannister said. “It would be a different story if the Maskers weren’t doing so well. There’s something wonderful happening, and I’m going to step aside and watch it and join it.”