BWW Interview: Thinking Forward: Maine State Music Theatre Celebrates Its Diamond Jubilee
Anniversaries are customarily times to reflect on the past, but for Maine State Music Theatre's Artistic Director, Curt Dale Clark, the 2018 gala celebration of the company's sixty years is not only a time to celebrate history, but also to use the significant milestone as an opportunity to look to the future.
"We are thinking forward and not resting on our laurels. We are accentuating what works, trying to fix what doesn't, and trying to find new ways to engage the community and make them happy," Clark explains his philosophy about the Brunswick-based theatre's upcoming historic season.
His sentiments are echoed by Board President Kristine Ganong: " I am looking forward to this 60th anniversary as a way to build on all sixty years of this theatre's history. I think it is very exciting that not only are we in such a good place right now, but that we have no where to go but upwards and onwards. There are lots of new ideas and collaborations in the works, and I think MSMT's future is very bright. I hope we can continue to bring in more and more people, especially younger people, who have the time and inclination to enjoy our wonderful theatre."
The theatre company, which was founded by Victoria Crandall, in 1959 began existence as the Brunswick Summer Playhouse. Crandall, a former concert pianist and producer with New York connections, was a colorful and indomitable presence in the Midcoast arts community for thirty-one years until her death in 1990. By that time the company had become not-for-profit and had undergone several name changes to reflect its growth and increasing regional significance. In 1988 then-governor John R. McKernan christened the company Maine State Music Theatre. In the next three decades, the theatre would continue to grow under the artistic leadership of Charles Abbott and Steve Peterson, affirming its commitment to Brunswick and its home at the Pickard Theater, and purchasing permanent rehearsal and studio space at 22 Elm Street. In 2013 Curt Dale Clark took over the helm as Artistic Director with Stephanie Dupal as his partner and Managing Director, and together they have implemented dynamic changes that continue to raise the theatre's profile on the national scene.
Asked what he considered the milestones in MSMT's six decades, Clark enumerates. "The inception of the theatre, of course, but inception doesn't guarantee success. Vicki fought and clawed and grew this company to real success. She had a measure of success the first summer, but not necessarily to the degree that would warrant coming back, but she did come back and in pretty short order, she had a company that ran productively year after year. To this day people talk about what Victoria Crandall meant to the town of Brunswick. She was a colorful character; she was as tough as nails, but she was revered and loved. Her goal was to entertain successfully this community, and I think MSMT continues to do that on a regular basis."
"The second milestone," Clark continues, "came in the 1970s when MSMT became a not-for-profit organization with a board of trustees instead of the privately owned company Vicki began. Then there were the various changes in the number of shows produced in a season. Vicki started with nine, then it became seven, and then five, and finally in 2002, we went to four shows for three weeks each, and we are getting pretty close to sold out with that number. But I do not want to decrease any more. The four-show formula really is the beginning of the modern era for this theatre, and we base all our projections on those parameters."
"Other events that have impacted the direction of this theatre," Clark continues, "have been changes in staff." Clark, who is only the fourth Artistic Director (succeeding Crandall, Abbott, and Peterson, who briefly served as Executive and Artistic Director after Abbott's retirement) says that "every time the administration changes at the top, there is a new focus, new blood, and new energy, and every time we change the makeup of our summer staff or adjust our needs to meet developing technology, that, too, impacts the company."
The secret, Clark maintains, to transitioning smoothly through watershed moments and shifts in company philosophy is "always to be looking to what the next big thing is. Otherwise, you can stagnate pretty quickly. I think MSMT has been very good at finding that next thing - that new challenge or focus."
Clark and all the Board members with whom I spoke are very conscious of the occasion an anniversary such as the Diamond Jubilee affords the theatre to take stock, evaluate the history and legacy of their theatre, and to plan for the coming decades. Clark sees the celebration as both an opportunity and an obligation: "I have been associated with MSMT for ten years as an actor, but only five as Artistic Director. I consider myself responsible to the town of Brunswick for safeguarding the legacy of this company and for helping the community appreciate what MSMT has meant to them. An occasion like this provides a very good opportunity to pause and reflect - to look back at all the good times they have had sitting in our seats or the cathartic evening they might have experienced at a serious musical that makes them cry. Both of these are valuable experiences and theatre is a safe place to feel those emotions before you go out and have dinner and start your daily life again."
MSMT Board Vice-President Margy Burroughs echoes these thoughts:" I think what's most exciting about this anniversary is the opportunity for the general public to reflect on how far this theatre has come in sixty years - even in the past ten years since I first became involved. It has grown so much, is so much a part of this town, and has done so much to help all the local businesses. MSMT provides such a phenomenal experience for anyone who walks through its doors. An anniversary like this is a great way to review that experience and see it in all its glory."
Board member Elena Vandervoort, whose connections to the company go back to opening night of the very first season when she was a teenager in Bath, recalls, "My parents had been very supportive of Victoria Crandall's efforts, and we were all absolutely thrilled to have that kind of professional theatre here in this area. We dressed to the nines and went to Song of Norway, and it was magical!"
VanderVoort, who lived much of her adult married life in New Jersey, returned to Maine in 1995 and continues to be amazed at the theatre's growth. "It was wonderful then, and it just keeps getting better and better."
Another longtime resident and Board member, Ann Loughridge Kerr says proudly, "Not only can very few theatres companies in this day and age boast sixty years, but MSMT has demonstrated not only longevity but growth. I go to the theatre in London, on Broadway and regionally, and MSMT's productions equal those standards and often exceed them."
"I always come away thinking 'That was SO good; how will the next show measure up?'" Board member Susan Mooney opines. "So far my expectations have been met, show after show. Each year as the season ends, I cannot wait for the next one to start the magic all over again."
So what magical events does MSMT have in store for its 60th anniversary celebration? "The goal for this celebration," Clark says, "is to make a big deal of the occasion. Too often we downplay successes and positive impact so as not to seem as if we are bragging. And, of course, I don't want to brag, but by the same token, sixty successful years for a small theatre company in Maine is a BIG DEAL!" Accordingly MSMT has created a calendar of six events for sixty years to complement and enhance its regular four main stage shows at the Pickard, two Theatre for Young Audiences productions, and three Monday evening concert stagings. In partnership with the Times Record for each of the sixty days the paper publishes prior to opening night, MSMT will run a print feature with photographs, quotes, anecdotes, and fun facts that capture the spirit of each of the company's prior seasons. "The Times Record is doing us a huge service," says Clark, "because this will offer a kind of mini-refresher course on the theatre's history that will boost spirits and build enthusiasm and anticipation for the season."
In a similar vein MSMT will mount its second retrospective exhibition of memorabilia at the Collaboratory of the Curtis Memorial Library. Entitled Strong at Sixty, the exhibition will feature programs, photographs, costumes, props, and other artifacts, accompanied by a video documentary and guided audio tour. The theatre will also create an interactive memory wall to elicit and disseminate community reminiscences about MSMT.
In addition, two special concerts will be performed - a gala at the Pickard, Sixty Years of Musical Theatre: the Best of MSMT Past and Present on August 13, featuring past and current performers in a program of selections from sixty songs that represent MSMT's sixty seasons. Repertoire and performers from that concert will also appear in the Brunswick Downtown Association's Music on the Mall series on August 15. "This outdoor concert, which last year drew Brunswick's largest crowd ever, promises to be bigger and better in its second outing. "What we have planned will blow this community away," glows Bunny Andrews, Board member and Chair of the History Committee. "The concert on the mall is going to be one of the best things ever presented in this town."
Other activities continue to be added, as part of MSMT's natural growth process and part of its earnest desire to expand its outreach programs and build new audiences. Among these will be touring performances: a return to the Franco-American Center in Lewiston with Robin & Clark's Cinderella on June 14 and with Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano on June 15 and a first-ever pair of performances at the Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center in Fryeburg, ME (made possible by a generous gift from the Robert and Dorothy Goldberg Foundation) on June 9 - these in addition to the regularly scheduled Pickard performances of these shows.
If there is a theme to the roster of these celebratory events it is the central role MSMT plays within the greater Midcoast and Maine communities. "There is no question MSMT has become a community anchor," Kerr states emphatically. "Curt has been active in various community organizations, and he has built so many partnerships with civic groups and businesses. Just look at the advertising in the playbill or the coverage the theatre gets from programs like its Peek Behind the Curtain [panel discussions with cast and creative at the library]. It's not just the play. MSMT is an intrinsic part of the fabric of the community."
New Board member and local banker Melissa J. Knutson attests, "In the short time I've been with MSMT, I am so impressed with how they have reached out to other organizations and non-profits to support them and to gain their support." She sees this as a means of making the theatre strong and, along "with its sound fiscal health and excellent quality of the productions, these are major factors in the theatre's reputation."
Vandervoort seconds these thoughts, also crediting what she calls "one of the best run organizations and most committed boards on which I have ever served." She adds, "The economic impact for the region is tremendous, and I cannot imagine that this will do anything else other than grow."
Clark sees community interaction as a passionately held mission, and he is touched when he learns of small and special ways in which the theatre has become meaningful to so many individuals. "I love it when the grocery clerk from Hannaford or the painter from one of our buildings - someone I wouldn't necessarily imagine had a connection to the theatre - shows me a picture or tells me an anecdote. It is our responsibility to be a watchdog for that legacy - to make sure it continues to be as meaningful, if not more so, to the community now and in the future as it has been in the past."
And what do Clark, Dupal, and the leadership of MSMT envision for that future? "There is no end to what we can achieve," Clark declares. "The question is how fast? We want to accomplish our goals safely so as never to put the company at risk." He enumerates some of the prudent ways MSMT has begun to chart the next decades. "The staff has finished a strategic plan, and now the Board will begin theirs. And then Stephanie [Dupal], the Board, staff, and I will cull that list into a coherent plan for the next five to ten years."
Pressed a little for other specifics, Clark talks about how proud he is of the "innovations MSMT has made in making life better for their interns and technical staff and for better utilizing their talents and for engaging the community with these young artists." He affirms this is an area he wishes to continue to develop, investing in MSMT's Educational Fellowship program and in outreach activities for the greater Maine public. He also cites MSMT's continued quest to purchase, renovate, and provide quality housing for its summer employees - something the current Capital Campaign has been helping to fund. "I am very excited about our recent purchase of 5 Noble Street, [Brunswick] which will become housing for our department heads, and I am hopeful we will have all the renovations complete and have the facility up and running for our 60th season!
He smiles one of those elusive Cheshire cat smiles, and then shares one of his and MSMT's most cherished goals. Alluding to his passionate quest to make MSMT a year-round presence and his dream of having a second performing space to expand the calendar and repertoire, Clark says: "We only have the Pickard stage for twelve weeks each summer. This community is starved for what we offer at times in the year when we can't offer it; so our goal is to give them what they want. We are constantly looking for more ways to engage our audiences in the off season, especially at the holidays, and I am going to guess that we ARE going to be able to make this happen."
A future with a vibrant MSMT - strong at sixty and strong beyond. Surely that is something that would make Victoria Crandall smile. " Clark considers the notion for a moment. " When I think of this anniversary, I imagine that Vicki is looking down on what's going on, and she absolutely loves what she sees. This Diamond Jubilee is a a chance for us to be proud of all that we have done, to share our celebration with our community, and to let the occasion become a springboard into the next sixty years."
Photographs courtesy of MSMT
MSMT 2018 season runs June 5 - August 25, 2018 For more information visit www.msmt.org or call Box Office at 207-725-8769