HARRISON – After a year of rebuilding, Deertrees Theatre in Harrison is coming back strong in summer 2013.

HARRISON – A year ago, Deertrees Theatre and Cultural Arts Center in Harrison was in a desperate situation.

The nearly century-old historic theater, which drew Broadway performers and Hollywood stars in its heyday, had not managed to break even in the slump years of the recent recession and was deep in debt and considering closing its doors.

The board of directors decided to give it one more season and determined that 2012 would be a rebuilding year. The board canceled the lineup of nightly performances through July and August in favor of six benefit performances, at which longtime loyal performers waived most or all appearance fees and ticket proceeds went to saving Deertrees.

Thanks to corporate and individual donors and those sellout benefit performances last year, 2013’s summer schedule is bulked up once again. Classical and Celtic music, comedy, jazz, and folk music will fill the air. And theater operators are hoping the summer season, which starts June 11 and runs through Aug. 17, draws even more customers and helps to further bolster the theater’s bottom line.

“We need about $200,000 between last year and this,” said Andrew Harris, Deertrees’ executive director. “We realized about a third of that last year. But if it takes us the rest of this year and next year even, that’s fine. We’ve got a vision and we’ve got a way forward for it. And realistically, we’ll probably have the to-do list done in the next five years.”

That to-do list is pretty lengthy. Deertrees, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a 77-year-old, natural wood-sided structure that melds into the surrounding forest. This spring, contractors have been busy replacing doors, windows and shutters in an effort to make the place more comfortable for theatergoers.

The investment extends to stage lighting and improving the art gallery, as well. So far, the theater has spent about $12,000 in upgrades.

“In the past, all of the resources went into programming, and that’s great, but that got us into trouble,” Harris said. “What we’re trying to do now is to balance it out. We’re trying to develop and expand the programming. There were only six or seven things last year. There are nearly 30 this year. But we’re trying to balance programming development with building development.”

Harris, who serves as the production manager for Portland Stage Co., is also donating his labor to Deertrees. He hopes to someday take a salary, but for now, getting the building and summer schedule back up to full speed is his driving passion.

“By next year, I hope people will be able to say, hey, that looks like the old Deertrees, where it’s as diverse as it has been in the past. And hopefully even now, people start to see some new influences,” he said. “We’re doing everything in moderation and trying to make things happen bit by bit so it gets back to a diverse program.”

Al Glover, chairman of the Deertrees board, is impressed with what Harris has been able to accomplish so far.

“Here’s a man who has worked two years for us for nothing. And he’s been a godsend. With his connections in the theater world, it’s just unreal. He’s picked us up with our bootstraps and put us where we are now,” Glover said.

In an effort to show off this spring’s building improvements, the theater held a social gathering for the Greater Bridgton Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce on May 23. Barbara Clark, the chamber’s executive director, was “absolutely impressed, as was everyone,” she said.

“Deertrees has been through a few years of challenges with the economy, like a lot of other businesses,” Clark said. “They’ve done some upgrades to facilities, painting, moving walls around. So it’s very spacious looking. They’re trying to do it within their budget, and they have a five-year strategic plan for bringing back the facility for the local people and the travelers that come here.”

Clark said the chamber helps advertise the historic theater in its area guide, on its website and when people call or drop in looking to attend cultural events.

“As a chamber, we’ll help them do what they do best, which is showcase that beautiful building and the performers that come there,” Clark said.

Deertrees is also the town of Harrison’s most notable landmark and cultural offering. The town manager, Bud Finch, makes sure to mention upcoming performances or other Deertrees news in his weekly email blasts. Though he’s been on the job only a short while, Finch knows the resurgence of Deertrees is important to the town.

“We are very pleased to see an even greater effort by the folks at Deertrees to keep the theater alive in Harrison. For more than 75 years Deertrees has brought theatre, concerts and the performing arts to the citizens of and visitors to the Friendly Village. To the people who have managed, operated, provided great talent, attended and financially supported over the years, we stand and applaud their efforts,” Finch said.

Harris said donors “have really stepped up.” He said several businesses have donated but that the bulk of the donations have come from longtime Deertrees patrons as well as new donors who learn about the theater’s financial situation and want to help.

“It’s a whole cross-section – stalwart donors who have helped us through thick and thin, and they are the main stay. But we’ve had some surprises with some anonymous donations of sizeable chunks. So it’s been really encouraging,” Harris said.

The goal, he said, is to have Deertrees once again capture the ambiance and high-quality performance program it once had when stars would spend their summers in Maine and treat Lakes Region locals and visitors to the best in show business.

“When I’m able to tell the story and why we’re in the situation we’re in, people have understood it. I don’t hide anything,” Harris said. “And people have stepped up the plate and continue to do so because it’s a phenomenal venue, and it is Maine’s most enchanting playhouse.”

Deertrees Theatre and Cultural Arts Center
Wearing a climbing harness and clipped into safety cables, lighting designer Emily Kenny works high above the theater floor to focus spotlights on the Deertrees Theatre stage. Photo by Rich Obrey

After a rebuilding year in 2012, Al Glover, left, chairman of Deertrees Theatre’s board of directors, and Andrew Harris, the theater’s executive director, say the Harrison theater is on its way back to full health, with a nearly full list of summer programming scheduled this year. File photo

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