KENNEBUNK — For Ana Dinino, it wasn’t much ado about nothing.
When the Kennebunk teenager heard last year that her beloved ShakeSTARS camp – a unique program run by MaineStage Shakespeare that connects professional actors and local children for a summer of outdoor theater – was in danger of closing, she couldn’t sit by and watch it end.
“It’s the highlight of my summer and the best part of my year,” Dinino said last week, after rehearsing a scene for an upcoming performance. “I bawl my eyes out when it’s over.”
At the end of last summer, Dinino’s bittersweet tears turned to anguish when she heard the future of the popular Shakespeare-in-the-park performances and day camp was uncertain. The nonprofit theater company, which for five years has brought hundreds of people to a small park for free performances, had no funding lined up and no money in its reserves. Organizers said they needed to find $25,000 to keep the nonprofit alive.
Dinino was determined not to let the program fade away without a fight. With the help of other ShakeStars, she made a video about the program and asked local businesses for donations. The students also set up a booth at the local farmers markets and did spontaneous performances, raising $600 in one day.
“They pounded the pavement pretty hard and let (the community) know what we needed to do,” said Jay Ben Markson, the company’s associate artistic director. “The (funding) problem is never really solved. We just hope the community believes we’re worth keeping around.”
The campaign to save MaineStage Shakespeare, led by the enthusiasm of kids who now speed through the Bard’s lines with ease, prompted enough donations to keep the theater company afloat. This year, 11 professional actors came to Maine to put on a series of performances at Lafayette Park and more than 150 kids enrolled in the day camp, which is led by the actors.
MaineStage Shakespeare will wrap up its season this week with performances of “Twelfth Night” on Thursday, “Julius Caesar” on Friday and both plays Saturday. Also on Saturday, children from the day camp will perform their final “Shakestacular,” a cabaret-style performance of scenes from Shakespeare comedies and tragedies.
MaineStage was founded in 2010 by Chiara Klein, Stephanie Strohm and Meg Kiley Smith, who had met the previous year while performing Shakespeare in New York. They incorporated the theater company as a nonprofit and began staging performances in Kennebunk in 2011. The theater company made its home in Lafayette Park on a stage built by the town of Kennebunk.
The MaineStage founders wanted to incorporate education as a way to connect children with Shakespeare and live theater. From the start, the company offered MaineStage ShakeStars, a series of weeklong summer camps for children ages 5 to 17 that offers young actors lessons in all aspects of theater, from playwriting to costuming to stage combat. The children pay fees for the camp through Kennebunk Recreation.
“It’s a real privilege for us to work with the kids,” Markson said. “Some kids start with barely having the confidence to speak to us to being very articulate and confident performers. It’s really lovely.”
Eva Weil, a 7-year-old from Virginia who has attended the camp for three summers, spent last week writing a play for the professional actors to perform at the weekly Shakestacular. The plot, she said, centers on the 1858 race between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. The story includes what Eva imagines as Lincoln’s pet leaf, which encourages him to run for president and is the source of teasing by Douglas.
“I wanted to make it a funny story,” she explained as she picked out a costume for Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd. “If you have a very little part, then you should at least have a good costume to wear. You don’t want to wear regular old clothes.”
On the other side of Lafayette Park, Dinino and a partner rehearsed a scene from “Much Ado About Nothing.” Her comedic timing sent her acting coach into fits of laughter.
Dinino, a sophomore at Kennebunk High School, said the program has given her confidence and caused her to fall in love with Shakespeare’s work. She’s already looking forward to next year’s camp and is considering a future career on stage.
“Without this, I’d be just another sophomore trying to figure out my place in the world,” she said.