Henry Mann has the name of a star. It’s a name that should be in lights, on a theater marquee or some other place of distinction.

Instead, Mann works as program coordinator of an education reform project at Northwestern University in Chicago. Once an actor and playwright, Mann’s stage days are behind him.

But the lessons he learned preparing plays for Maine’s competitive one-act drama festival each spring serve him well. Mann, now 26 and a 2006 graduate of Morse High School in Bath, got into theater because it was the only place that encouraged him to express himself, to speak up and be heard. He learned lessons about teamwork and collective action, and mastered communication skills, all of which he uses in his work in Chicago.

The festival, which culminates this week in Rockport with a gathering of high school thespians from across New England, was all about power and self-expression, he said.

“The one-acts seemed to remove adults from the equation in a way that most youth activities do not do,” Mann wrote in an email. “Unlike sporting events where coaches play a integral role throughout games, theater directors and tech directors have to step away once the curtain goes up. In a world where so little trust is put in young people, this was a novel and incredibly powerful lesson for me.”

This weekend’s New England Drama Festival in Rockport is a showcase of the best of New England high school theater. It’s a non-competitive festival. Two schools represent each state, emerging from their state’s one-act competition for the right to present their play. The festival is open to the public, and runs Thursday to Saturday at the 800-seat Strom Auditorium at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport.

Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth will represent Maine, having won the state one-act competition in their respective classes in late March. Yarmouth won its division for the third year in a row, presenting the comedy “Scenes from Epic Proportions.” It will run the play at 6:30 p.m. Friday in Rockport. Cape Elizabeth won for “The Dishwasher,” a minimalist play that reflects on the role of each member of society. Cape Elizabeth presents its play at 10 a.m. Saturday.

This weekend is about having fun. Winning the state competition was serious business, but the New England festival is a chance to unwind and show off, Yarmouth senior Samantha Mangino said. She plays the female love interest in a triangle that also involves two brothers.

She’s looking forward to meeting theater kids from schools in other states. As three-time Maine champions, the Yarmouth kids have met many of their peers over the years. They will renew bonds and make new ones, she said. “You get to celebrate with each other, and celebrate the arts,” she said.

“Winning the states was really surreal,” said her classmate, Jackson Ruprecht, 17. “I wanted it more than I wanted anything.”

With that pressure behind them, their goal this weekend is to perform well not just for the pride of Yarmouth, but for all of Maine, he said.

At Cape Elizabeth, longtime theater director Dick Mullen will lead his students to the New England showcase for the fourth time. These festivals are valuable because they teach kids how to work together and how to get along, he said. They are places of connection and acceptance, where backstage techies support the actors on stage.

“It really is a team effort. There’s not a star system. It’s about everyone fitting into a production,” Mullen said.


As festival host, Camden Hills technology coordinator Thomas Heath is preparing for about 400 people, including students and staff from the 12 participating schools. There’s room for plenty more. He and festival volunteers spent last week putting up posters around town, and he hopes curious Mainers come out to see the best of high school theater in New England.

Plays will be presented two at a time, with two sessions Thursday afternoon, three on Friday and one on Saturday.

Heath got hooked on theater as a student at Medomak Valley High School, and now works with his theater mentor, Rick Ash, at Camden Hills.

Hosting both the Maine festival and the New England festival is a point of pride for the school, Heath said. “It’s never been to midcoast Maine, let alone Camden Hills. We’re very excited. It’s a huge opportunity, and a great chance to interact with schools from other states,” he said.

The New England festival has a long history. It began in 1928 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and included only schools from Rhode Island and Massachusetts until 1930. The first Maine high schools to participate were Jordan in Lewiston and Lawrence in Fairfield in 1931. The first Maine school to host was South Portland in 1934.

Falmouth hosted the New England festival five years ago. It never gets old because the nature of theater ensures liveliness and spirit, Falmouth theater director Dede Waite said. “I can tell you that this is one of the best places to see the value of theater in a young person’s education,” she said. “I have been constantly amazed by the dedication, creativity and excitement” the festival season brings to students across Maine.

Falmouth theater parent Colleen Coxe sees that enthusiasm in the program alumni, who call in every festival weekend to see how Falmouth fared. Her son, Jack, is among the Falmouth theater alumni, having graduated in 2009. He lives in New York now, his acting days behind him, as well. But he attends several plays a month. The Falmouth theater program may not have turned her son into an actor, Coxe said, but it created a theater-goer, which may be just as important.

Like Jack Coxe, Henry Mann keeps his Maine theater experience close at hand. The friends he made on stage will be friends for life, he said.

When Morse went to the state finals in 2006, it performed a play that Mann wrote, “Hello.” That was his moment, his time to shine. What he remembers most fondly was the effort of his peers to make his script sound good. It was both humbling and awesome, he said.

It felt good to know that his friends had his back.

“To be absolutely honest with you, I never really put much stock in the actual script that I wrote. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of it, but I was so much more impressed by the work of my peers in bringing the script to life,” he said.

“We accomplished a great deal as a team, and that will stick with me forever.”