SOUTH PORTLAND – This year, the management of Portland Players, Maine’s longest-running community theater, believes it is offering a season to please all tastes.

The season, which continues through May 29, just began with “Seussical the Musical,” running through Sept. 26.

“Everyone knows Dr. Seuss,” said Jamie Lupien, a member of the theater’s board of directors and the director of the show. “It is a very universal topic that people are familiar with.”

Every year the South Portland theater produces a family-friendly show.

“One of our missions is to get children involved and foster the educational aspect of theater and the arts,” Lupien said.

Nancy Lupien, Jamie Lupien’s mother and fellow board member who has been involved with the theater for more than 30 years, said the goal this season, as it has always been, is to offer a variety of shows in all theatrical genres.

With the start of its 80th season, it’s a mission that clearly has attracted loyal audiences.

“We were really working on a season that would really interest the community,” said Nancy Lupien. “I think we have a good mix of shows.”

“Seussical the Musical” is the family show, “Steel Magnolias” is comedic drama, “The Mouse Trap” is a murder mystery, “A Chorus Line” is a classical musical and “Side Show” is a musical familiar to longtime Portland Players audience members.

Nancy Lupien said the present board of directors is committed to finding shows that will attract patrons with all sorts of theatrical tastes. In December, the Play Selection Committee, which includes both Jamie and Nancy Lupien, will begin thinking about what to stage next season. A ballot will be distributed at all performances of “Seussical the Musical” for audience members to vote on what plays they might want to see next season.

According to Linwood Dyer, a local theater historian and longtime Players participant, it is the commitment of the theater’s current board and the boards that came before it that has contributed to the theater’s longevity.

Dyer, who has been involved in local theater since the early 1940s, said the theater company had strong leadership right from the start when in 1931, Phyllis Schuyler Thaxter, wife of Maine Supreme Court Justice Sidney St. Felix Thaxter and mother of famed Broadway actress Phyllis Thaxter, started the theater in Portland.

Originally called the Portland Dramatic Guild, the group adopted the Portland Players moniker in 1934 after the New York Theater Guild refused to release plays to community theater groups with guild in their name.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the theater company bounced between staging shows at the Elm Theater and Frye Theater in Portland.

Dyer said it was not uncommon, especially during the theater’s early years, to have to pack up a show at one theater one night, only to have to move and open the show again at another theater the next night.

Theater operation was put on hiatus during World War II from April 1942 to January 1946.

According to a Nov. 6, 1981, article in the Portland Evening Express about Portland Players 50th anniversary, in 1952 the theater moved to the Dollhouse Theater in Deering Center in Portland. The theater was in that space for two years before moving to a space on Preble Street, where it stayed until a move across Portland Harbor to the former Cape Theater in South Portland in the late 1960s, despite opposition by some members of the organization who didn’t support the move.

“While the vast majority of Players members supported the concept of securing a permanent home, some objected to what they considered a ‘mutiny’ against downtown Portland,” Bob Niss wrote in the Evening Express article.

Portland Players purchased and renovated the former moviehouse for $65,000 and staged “The Odd Couple” in November 1967 as its first show in South Portland.

Much of the Players’ success in South Portland can be attributed to Joe Thomas, a longtime fixture at the theater. Thomas began directing shows for the Players in 1970 as the theater’s artistic director, a position he retained until his death in 1990.

The Lupien family has also been longtime contributors to the success of the theater.

“The second date with the man I married was here,” Nancy Lupien said of her husband, Steve, who is active in set building for the Players. “He told me if I wanted to hang with him I better get interested in theater. I don’t act and I don’t dance, but I became involved. We brought our children up here and have had many, many good memories here.”

Jamie Lupien, who first became involved at the theater in eighth grade for a performance of “My Fair Lady,” said she remembers spending a lot of nights and weekends at the theater.

“I was a shy kid,” she said. “I think the only reason I came out of it was because of my involvement here.”

That interest in theater continued into her collegiate years, when she started a musical theater program at Westminster Choir College, where she graduated with a degree in music.

Nancy Lupien said aside from the staging of this season’s six shows, Portland Players is also in the process of organizing a comedy night, its first karaoke night, and a new director’s showcase in which aspiring theater directors submit work for a performance at the end of the season. An expansion to the children’s theater workshop is also planned.

She said the mission of Portland Players is to encourage and develop interest in theater and the arts in the local community.

Last year Portland Players, Lyric Music Theater, Mad Horse Theatre Company and Stages Performing Arts Academy for Children – all located within a mile of each other in South Portland – created the South Portland Arts Alliance to do just that.

The alliance, Nancy Lupien said, is committed to meeting monthly to discuss ways the groups can collaborate and share props and costumes. And there is interest in expanding the effort to include other arts in the area, as well.

Despite the tough economic climate nationwide for theater and other arts groups, Dyer sees Portland Players continuing into the future.

“I think there is enough activity and interest in the local area to keep it going,” he said.

During the 1935-1936 season, Portland Players, then still located in Portland, staged the 1933 Elizabeth McFadden melodrama “Double Door.” (Courtesy photo)

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