Melody Bates, the playwright of “Avalon” in the Wizard’s Tower at Nervous Nellie’s. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

DEER ISLE – The wooden tower emerges from the mist of a lingering rain, three stories tall and enveloped by the green of Nellieville and the woods of Deer Isle, where legends come to play and myths are made.

Nellieville is not a mythical place, but a real place, created by artist, sculptor and jelly maker Peter Beerits, who came here more than 30 years ago to make jams and jellies under the name Nervous Nellie’s. Since then, he’s also made magic.

After he hired a cook and allowed his artistic instincts to emerge, Beerits has created with wood and Deer Isle junk a compound of Old West buildings, a knights’ castle and a small church, making an enchanting landscape that is very real but feels make-believe among the rocks, trees and moss. It exists as an evolving art installation, folk-art sculpture park and jelly bar, and a uniquely Maine destination for three decades.

This month, Nellieville also becomes the outdoor setting for “Avalon,” an original, site-specific play by Opera House Arts, the community arts organization on Deer Isle that presents most of its work at the Stonington Opera House, the historic theater on the harbor. Opera House Arts also has a long traditional of creating site-specific original theater and dance, and is moving across the island to the enchanted world of Nellieville to stage “Avalon.”

The name references an isle of apples, where magic, humanity and myth mingle in a shifting world of clashing cultures. Opera House Arts commissioned playwright and actress Melody Bates to write the play, which is an imaginative retelling of the legend of King Arthur. “Avalon” is interactive and will move scene-by-scene among the compound with the audience following as the actors perform in the Grail Castle, Wizard’s Tower and church. The final scene will take place in the meadow, with a little bit of dusk.

The play will begin at 5:30 nightly Aug. 15-25. There are 80 tickets per performance, with seating for 60. Many performances are sold out.

Beerits built the Wizard’s Tower over three winters for this play. It stands tall like the trees, with three levels and balconies that look out across the woods. Like all the buildings of Nellieville, the tower will find its own spirit over time and take on its own life after “Avalon.” For now, it’s the tallest building in Nellieville and a dramatic set for a key scene in the play.

Bates, who lives in New York, has acted in nearly a dozen plays at Stonington over the past decade and has been enchanted with Nervous Nellie’s since her first trip to Deer Isle. Her first professional job out of high school was with Opera House Arts, when she was the only new member in a cast of six. The rest all had acted in the summer before in Stonington.

Peter Beerits in The Grail Castle, one of the sculptures he built on the grounds of his jam and jelly business, Nervous Nellie’s. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

“So it was five actors and me, and they all told me about Nervous Nellie’s. They said, ‘We are going to take you to this place – you can’t even imagine it.’ I said, OK, sure – and when we did go, I was stunned. Nellieville is one of the few places that I know of which I don’t think you can over-hype. No matter what you say about it, it’s hard to capture the essence of it. It is a thing that must be experienced.”

Beerits began making specialty jams and jellies in the mid-’80s, when Nervous Nellie’s existed mostly as a wholesale business. He cooked the jam, filled the jars and sent them out across the country. But summer in Maine brings visitors, and before long, people started showing up at Beerits’ kitchen expecting something more than just jam. They wanted an experience.

He began serving samples on the deck and eventually built a shop and tea room. In the winter, he made whimsical found-object sculptures, often humans and animals, collecting material from the island and acting on instincts that he honed over nine years of art school in Massachusetts and California – four years at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and five more at Long Beach State. Each spring, he put the sculptures from the winter out in the yard, and people bought them. Each summer, more visitors showed up.

The sculpture eventually made its way into the woods, and Beerits began collecting and then constructing buildings. His first building was an existing structure, the old Hardy General Store in the Sunset area of Deer Isle. When Neville Hardy put up a sign saying he was closing the store, Beerits acted. “I said, ‘What’s going to happen with the building?’ He said, ‘We’ll knock it down and put it on the burn pile.’ I said, ‘It belongs in a museum.’ ”

Hardy laughed, but Beerits worked up the courage to ask if he could salvage a piece of the store front. Instead, he took most of the structure and set it up as an art installation on his five-acre property, nearly exactly as it was when the store closed, with a menu advertising doughnuts for 25 cents (plus tax), and shelves stocked with B&M Baked Beans, pumpkin pie filling and motor oil.

The inside of the chapel Peter Beerits built for the Opera House Arts play Avalon on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. The play will be performed on the grounds of Beerit and his wife’s business Nervous Nellie’s where he has spent years constructing some of the sets. (Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer) Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

He later created a juke joint, Red’s Lounge, and the musicians to play in it. The Western town followed, over many years of construction, and the church, “because the town needed a church,” Beerits said.

All of the buildings become inhabited by “some sort of spirit,” said Beerits, who oversees Nellieville with his wife, Anne. “It happens at some point after I leave and move on to something else. But with the church, it’s a different order of magnitude.” He often finds lilies and rosary beads at Easter, and other offerings. “I didn’t put it there. It came in there,” he said. “There’s a deep spiritual presence in that church.”

The Grail Castle is an open-roof circular structure guarded by two knights. Inside, there are more knights, long tables, grails and other Arthurian references. The Grail Castle was personal. Beerits played with toy knights as a kid, “and I am sure I ran around with a wooden sword.” But as a young adult, he saw a Jungian therapist following a divorce. As part of Beerits’ therapy, he read the Arthurian tales from a Jungian point of view, and built the Grail Castle soon after. “It was a way of processing,” he said. “I don’t understand anything unless I build it and walk around it. That’s how I process information.”

Bates showed up many years later, charmed by Beerits’ wit and inextricably drawn to all of Nellieville and especially the Grail Castle. She has a deep love of the Arthurian legends, as well. The idea of setting a play at Nervous Nellie’s came three years ago, at the suggestion of a cast mate in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Bates wanted to write about the Arthurian legend, because the mystery and enchantment of the story matches the mystery and enchantment of Nellieville. The grounds were already infused with Arthurian spirit, with a castle and a church, and Beerits eagerly agreed to build the tower – as long as he had plenty of time to do it.

“The smaller buildings, I might build one a winter,” he said. “The big ones might take two or three.”

“Avalon” has a core cast of eight actors, all from New York and most of whom worked on site at Nervous Nellie’s last June, when the opera house brought them to Maine for a workshop. Beerits worked closely with the cast members and directors, listening to their feedback about the tower so he could finish it for their needs.

“Avalon” has a directing team of three: Joan Jubett, Laura Butler Rivera and April Sweeney. Judith Jerome, Opera House Arts’ co-founder and former artistic director and mentor to Bates, serves as dramaturg.

The local ensemble will double the size of the cast. Bates plays Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half sister.

Melody Bates, center, the playwright of Avalon sits in on technical team meeting on the grounds of Nervous Nellie’s. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Per Janson, producing artistic director for Opera House Arts, also came to Stonington as an actor, arriving for the first time in 2012. Like Bates, he made an early visit to Nervous Nellie’s. “It’s my favorite place on the island, and I am thrilled we are able to do a production here. The space is already alive and extremely layered. It feels a little like a sanctuary to me,” he said.

In this play, Avalon is a place of acceptance, “where you truly feel you belong, that you will not want because the community around you is your family – not your nuclear family, but truly your human family. And everyone else in that place shares that sense of belonging, that comfort and that abundant, peaceful relationship to the world,” Bates said.

It is a holy place and a spiritual place, and a place where everyone works together. Bates’ play is about what happens when civilizations clash and when the apple becomes, as she says, “ripe for the taking.” “Avalon” shows what happens when people are forced to choose. Her play emphasizes a world complicated by competing ideas and the difficult choices people are forced to make as their worlds change.

“It’s such a great story,” she continues, “and we’re telling it in a way that is fresh and funny and beautiful and exciting – and then heartbreaking, because the world is tilting further and further out of balance, and these extraordinary people are more trapped by this ever-shifting world.”

Near the end of the play, as Arthur is dying on the battle field, Morgan le Fay wraps him in her arms and says, “My brother, you have been so long in coming home to me,” and places him in a boat and takes him home to Avalon.

The once and future king cannot be saved, but perhaps he can be healed.


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