PORTLAND —  With the eyes of the theater world trained on the never-ending saga of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” and its long-delayed Broadway opening, the big question in Portland is whether the community can support all the theater that’s available on any given weekend.

On one measurable level, we now know that the answer is no. Earlier this month, the fledgling Old Port Playhouse closed its doors amid its second season.

Then again, at same time the Old Port Playhouse was explaining its decision to patrons, a new theater company, Dramatic Repertory Company, offered its first show and drew respectable audiences to its two-week run of the drama “Blue/Orange.”

This churning of the market comes at a time when National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman has warned that America is overstuffed with theater and that a thinning-out process might be in order. Essentially, Landesman believes that supply outstrips demand, and that it might be for the greater good if a few theaters closed.

Survival of the fittest, he seems to be saying.

The question remains, how much is too much?

An informal survey of theater directors in Portland suggests that local companies are holding their own, the demise of the Old Port Playhouse notwithstanding. They believe the theater scene is healthy.

“We’ve had a great year, we really have,” said Brian P. Allen, artistic director of Good Theater, which is presenting its final show of the season, “Bedroom Farce,” through April 3 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland. “We had record donations in 2010, and ‘August: Osage County’ was our biggest hit ever. We had the most number of tickets sold and most number turned away.”

So popular was the season-opening show that Allen plans to bring it back. He will reprise “August: Osage County” with virtually the same cast this fall. It will open Good Theater’s 10th season.

Just the idea of a 10th season causes Allen to pause and reflect. It seems like just a few days ago that he and partner Steve Underwood were laying the groundwork for Good Theater’s first season.

They’ve had terrific fun, and audiences have responded. Filling seats has never been an issue.

If anything, Allen thinks audiences may be more discerning now than before. Whether it’s because people have more choices or because of a tight economy, people seem less inclined to buy tickets automatically.

“They do not mind spending the money, but they want to know they are going to have a good time. We are seeing our opening weekend with less attendance, but stronger attendance after the review comes out and word-of-mouth,” he said.


Across town at Portland Stage Company, Anita Stewart is also in the process of putting the final touches on the 2011-12 season. She plans to announce the lineup of plays in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, Portland Stage has a long way to go in the current season. “The Center of Gravity” closes today, and previews of the next show, the comic-drama “Halpern & Johnson,” begin March 29. The final show of the season is “The Syringa Tree,” opening May 3.

“We’ve been having record-setting numbers coming to our shows,” Stewart said. “We have been running above percentages the past two years in terms of houses. Some of it is the shows and the interest that people have in some of the material we are presenting. But I also think the economy is loosening up just a little bit. It’s not quite a stretch for people to say, ‘Gee, let’s go to the theater.’ “

Portland Stage began its season with two hits — the comedy “The 39 Steps” and John Cariani’s “Last Gas.” It has sustained that momentum throughout the season, despite a schedule that does not boast plays with wide recognition.

The February comedy “2 Pianos 4 Hands” was “a runaway success,” Stewart said. “We hadn’t anticipated it doing as well as it did. ‘The Center of Gravity’ is meeting expectations. It’s a new play and less easy for the audience. The story is not as linear, but it’s holding its own and doing well.”

The new player on the scene, the Dramatic Repertory Company, got off to a good start with its inaugural show, the intense “Blue/Orange.” Dramatic Rep presented the show for a two-week run in the studio theater at Portland Stage. It will follow that up with “Gross Indecency” in June.

“It was very encouraging,” said artistic director Keith Powell Beyland. “Obviously, we wished we had sold out every performance, but we built as we went on. We were very encouraged by the audience response and by the fact that we started to build the audience as the weeks went on. I wished we were doing a third week.”

“I was very pleased with the production itself. I thought we achieved what I was trying to achieve at a high level of professionalism,” he said. “The actors did an incredible job with an incredibly difficult play. So I was very pleased with the run we had, and it encourages me to continue and think about what I want to do beyond ‘Gross Indecency,’ as well. The most common thing I heard coming out of the show was they will see us again in June. That’s very positive feedback. You gave them an evening they want to have again.”

‘IT’S A 24-7 JOB’

Michael Tobin, founder and artistic director of the Old Port Playhouse, was disappointed he had to close the theater, but grateful for the success he had over one full season and a large chunk of a second. In that time, the venue produced 21 shows.

For some theater companies, 21 shows represents three or four seasons — or more. Old Port Playhouse cranked out show after show, and as a result spent a lot of time chasing an audience. Virtually every weekend it was in business, the playhouse offered some sort of ticketed event. It’s hard to get even the most loyal fan out more than once a month, Tobin said.

Attendance was solid at the beginning and through the first year. It began declining over the course of last summer, and the fall did not reverse that trend.

Still, Tobin said he closed the theater because he simply could not maintain the pace.

“We closed because we wanted to, not because we had to,” he said. “Health-wise, it took its toll. Relationship-wise, it took its toll. It’s a 24-7 job.”

The question that lingers revolves around the hunger of the audience. People have more choices today than ever, and Tobin believes people are choosing to stay home rather than go out.

“I think it’s harder and harder to get people in the seats. It’s technology. We can’t compete against the computer, the Wiis and iPods and the Netflix and all those instant-gratification tools that are in your home,” he said.

Tobin, who has since landed a job with Fiddlehead Center for the Arts, intends to produce theater in the future. He is keeping the Old Port Playhouse name, and plans to offer shows at other venues, possibly as early as this summer.

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

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