February 24, 2013

Keyes: In a historic former school, a Star is born

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

KITTERY - Since he founded his professional theater company in southern Maine in 2006, director Kent Stephens has been waiting for the appropriate time to present the play "Cape May."

20130219_StarTheater
click image to enlarge

Kent Stephens in the new Star Theatre, which occupies the cafeteria and gymnasium of the former Frisbee School in Kittery. Stephens wlll christen the theater next month with “Cape May,” which was written by Patricia Lynch, his wife and the executive director of The Music Hall in Portsmouth, N.H.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

20130219_StarTheater
click image to enlarge

The theater seats 171 and features the latest technology.

"CAPE MAY"

WHEN: March 29 to April 7

WHERE: Star Theatre, Kittery Community Center, 120 Rogers Rd.

HOW MUCH: $25, $30

INFO: stageforce.org; kitterycommunitycenter.org

With the opening of the Star Theatre at the Kittery Community Center, Stephens seems to have the perfect opportunity. "Cape May" will open the theatrical schedule at the newly constructed 171-seat theater in late March.

The original play was written by Stephens' wife, playwright Patricia Lynch, who is better known in these parts as the executive director of The Music Hall across the river in Portsmouth, N.H.

Set on coastal New Jersey, "Cape May" tells the story of three generations of Irish-American women and how their lives are shaped and molded by the family's summer cottage. The cottage is a central figure in the play, becoming a character itself with voice and personality.

It seemed fitting to choose a play about a building with a legacy to christen a theater that has a bit of a legacy itself.

The Star is one of the jewels of the new community center, which occupies the former Frisbee School on Rogers Road. The school was built in the early 1940s to educate the children of shipbuilders. At one time, it was the largest school in Kittery.

The theater space is the school's former cafeteria and gymnasium. The tall brick walls, arched windows and wood-floor stage remind visitors of the past while offering Stephens and Stage Force a fully realized professional space for their shows.

The seating is raked and the stage area large and wide, with flexibility and plenty of room in the wings and backstage. The Star benefits from modern technology and comfortable seating without compromising its history and place in the community as a gathering space.

"When I first saw the space, it reminded me of the old Pittsburgh Public (Theater) space. It felt robust and ready," said Stephens. "The space will dictate what we do. The space may want bigger stories, bigger theater."

Stage Force used to be known as Harbor Light Stage. Stephens founded the company soon after he and Lynch moved to Kittery Point in 2004.

Lynch loves the idea of premiering "Cape May" in Kittery in the hands of her director-husband. She wrote it a decade ago when they lived in Minneapolis.

"We're thrilled that we're going to get to see it on the Seacoast, and I'm thrilled with the idea of collaborating again with my husband, which I haven't done since we moved here," she said.

Both were active in the Minneapolis theater scene before they moved to Maine.

Stephens' troupe has been an itinerant professional company from the beginning, presenting shows at locations across the Seacoast and southern Maine. It has produced readings and plays at The Music Hall and the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, and at the York Masonic Lodge and the tony York Harbor Reading Room.

The Star Theatre offers a fixed space and the chance for Stage Force to establish a consistent home while accommodating a larger audience.

The core audience comes from Kittery, Eliot, York and the Berwicks, as well as the New Hampshire border towns.

Lynch is hopeful the theater will further help Stage Force establish its niche. With 171 seats, the Star is big enough to draw a large audience, but not so big that it lacks intimacy.

"They're a company with some real vision," she said. "The Star Theatre allows for a kind of theatricality that no venue around here really can, because of the height of the ceiling, the rake of the seats and the general depth. The theater is the right size, and it has that exposed brick that gives it warmth and character."

Stephens appreciates the multi-use aspect of the Star. It's owned by the town of Kittery and managed by its recreation department.

It's available for outside groups to rent, and should see plenty of activity for all kinds of events beyond theater, including town meetings and elections as well as a fully array of arts and cultural happenings.

The name "Star" recognizes the lead donor to the project, the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation. The foundation is based in New York, but Ogden trustee Peter Lamb lives in Kittery.

"The family owned and operated Star Expansion Industries for nearly 100 years," Lamb said in an email. "We have a long history of supporting the arts and community-based projects that encourage the creative economy and environmental stewardship."

The Lamb family dates to the mid-1600s on the Seacoast, Lamb added. That's a lot of local history, and it portends well for the future of professional theater in southern Maine.

The theater will be dedicated on Wednesday, with key donors' names affixed to the armchairs of the seats. A few weeks later, the Star will host its first production.

"We're going to have a lot of fun here," Stephens said. "We can't wait to get going." 

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

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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