Early last week, Pat Packard gathered a small army of volunteers. They stuffed fliers advertising an upcoming performance into envelopes and hauled them down to the post office.

“It’s labor-intensive,” allowed Packard, president of Saco River Grange Hall in Bar Mills. “We do not go through the commercial guys, because we like to keep our hands on things.”

For 20 years, Packard has taken a hands-on approach to running the historical Grange as a performing arts center. She and her husband, Andy, bought and restored the Grange because they love fixing old buildings.

In the time since, they have created a thriving nonprofit community arts center in the century-old Grange and adjacent Old White Church. They operate with a budget of about $150,000 annually and host several plays each year, as well as dozens of concerts, yoga classes, historical society meetings, board meetings and other events.

Given the historic community nature of the Grange, they hoped to create an arts center that returned the old shingled hall back to the community’s core.

“It’s perfectly what I envisioned,” Packard said. “It’s grass-roots all the way. We host meetings and dances and concerts, plays, suppers, silent movies.

“When we opened, we proposed all those things, and it’s blossomed way beyond. The crafts people want their crafts shows, the piano people want their recitals, the daycare center wants their children’s concerts. People want their birthday parties there. It’s become a true community center.”

Today’s performance by pianist Oni Buchanan is a good example of the kind of programming Saco River likes to present. Buchanan is a Boston-based classical musician who has performed all over the world. For today’s concert, she will present a program spanning 300 years of music by French composers.

The first three years, the Packards ran Saco River on their own, privately. Then their accountant spoke up.

“He said, ‘You can’t afford to do this any longer. It would be a perfect nonprofit.’ ” The Packards got their nonprofit status in 1993, and have never looked back.

Over those years, the primary tenant has been the Originals, a striving theater company operated by the Packards’ son, Dana, and his wife and artistic partner, Jennifer Porter.

The couple was still at school in Orono when they began offering summer shows in Windham in 1988. Two years later, they moved to the Grange Hall.

The hall seats about 175 people, which is just the right size. It fills up for musicals, but is not so large that the Packards have to consider commercial appeal when choosing shows. For instance, the next play on the docket is “Shivaree” by William Mastrosimone, which opens Nov. 5 and runs for two weekends. It’s about a hemopheliac, sheltered young man who falls in love with a belly dancer.

Over the course of 20 years, the Originals have staged 65 plays. They hire union and non-union professionals locally and from New York and Boston. They are motivated to make great art that is satisfying to the actors on stage and to people in the audience.

“The space allows us to do subtle material, where we don’t have to be bombastic and overly theatrical,” said Dana Packard, who in addition to founding the Originals with his wife also serves as artistic director of the Grange Hall.

“Our audiences are very open to a range of material, from classic American plays by folks like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller to ‘Extremities’ (also by Mastrosimone) to ‘Hair’ to crazy comedies,” he said. “We try to present a real variety of plays.

“We’re really lucky. We can do whatever we want. We really try to do justice to the material and give audiences something to be moved by, whether moved to tears or hysterics.”

That attitude reflects the philosophy that has guided Saco River Grange Hall for 20 years.

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]