Nick Caruso (from left), Maggie Adolf and Elizabeth Chasse-King discuss a scene in “Our Stories Need to Be Told” at the Theater Project in Brunswick before the show had to be canceled due to COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Molly Haley

BRUNSWICK — The costumes are still hanging in the dressing room, waiting to be worn. The lights are up, the stage is set, and Brunswick’s The Theater Project seems frozen in time.

But the curtain fell on the small local theater’s production of “Our Stories Need to be Told,” a recounting of Holocaust survivors’ true stories, just days before opening night. The theater was forced to close due to the coronavirus, and it has yet to reopen. 

The 80-seat black box theater remains suspended, waiting for the actors, directors and stagehands to return, but executive director Wendy Poole doesn’t know when that time may come — and if the organization doesn’t get some money soon, she doesn’t know if it will happen at all. 

“Lost income from canceled productions, camps, classes and the annual auction (our largest fundraising event, will top $40,000. That loss is nearly a quarter of the theater’s annual budget,” the board of directors wrote in a letter to the community posted online Monday. 

After it closed in March, officials with The Theater Project mobilized to offer as many online classes, camps and youth productions as possible, but “those programs will not sustain the theater financially through this crisis,” the board wrote. It will “only survive with” help. 

The nonprofit is seeking roughly $15,000 in donations, which will be matched by an anonymous donor, a surprise announcement that Poole said was “like Christmas.” 

The $30,000 won’t cover all the revenue lost, but it will at least keep the theater going through the winter.

“It’s mind blowing how much your monthly bills still are when you’re not really doing anything,” she said. “It’s so hard, no one wants to keep their theater dark.” 

As is the case for most community organizations, the fall remains a question mark, but Poole is determined to do whatever it takes to keep the children’s program running in some capacity, whether through outdoor, virtual or blended methods. 

The Theater Project started in Brunswick almost 50 years ago  — this will be the 49th season — as a children’s theater, and has since grown into a year-round professional theater for children, student, community and professional actors alike. 

“We’ve tried to keep it a place where people are happy to come to,” Poole said. “We’ve had so many kids from Brunswick come through the doors.” 

The Theater Project’s education and youth programs are anchored by the belief that “if you give young people respect they will respect you back, respect the building and respect the process,” she said. “We are creating young supporters of the art and supporters of working together.” 

Jim Adolf has seen firsthand what The Theater Project can mean for a child. 

Now a board member, he first became involved with the organization through his daughters, who started attending the summer camps when they were seven and nine years old. 

Before long, they were in productions and eventually behind the scenes as stage managers for some of the community and professional productions. It became and important part of their lives, he said. 

And that’s not just true for his kids. 

“You’ll find generations of kids for whom it was a really important place in their development,” he said, and “filled a role that nothing else filled in terms of making friendships outside of school, just being a place and an activity that was inclusive and non judgmental and teaching them some really important skills and self confidence. It sounds kind of hokey, but it’s true.” 

As their involvement continued, eventually moving away from the center stage and staying more behind the scenes, Adolf also saw how important live theater was for the town, offering more cultural and intellectual stimulation, making for a more open-minded community. 

A small 80-seat theater isn’t going to be an economic driver quite like the nearby Maine State Music Theatre, which is also facing a potentially “devastating” loss of revenue in the millions, according to officials, but it still brings a lot to the table for a town like Brunswick.

“It is this incredible cultural resource in a small town that I think really brings something different and important to the cultural life in our town,” Adolf said.

Eddie Hatrick, board member of Midcoast Youth Theater, sees every day how impactful the arts can be for children. Midcoast Youth Theater is a Brunswick-based, nonprofit, inclusive musical theater company for children.

“We find it is a place where a lot of kids can excel and shine and have their moment, maybe for the first time,” he said. “It gives kids a real sense of accomplishment. To be able to get up on stage… public speaking is a lot of people’s number one fear” and they are able to master that through theater early on. 

According to Hatrick, the theater was lucky in that organizers were able to pivot to online programming relatively quickly and easily. Productions of “Dr. Doolittle,” and “Rent” were canceled, as were some as-yet-undecided middle and elementary school level shows, but there have not been too many losses. 

The company has little overhead costs, with no fixed building or paid actors. Officials maintain a costume rentals shop in Fort Andross, but beyond the rent for that, there isn’t much, he said. 

“We’re able to just tread water until it’s time to gear up and go again,” he said. “Like everybody, we’re waiting to see what it’s safe to do this fall… What it is we can and should be offering to fill in some gaps or to augment the type of arts (kids) are able to get (in school).” 

Hatrick, Poole and  Adolf all said they hope people will continue to support the arts in their communities so that places like The Theater Project, Midcoast Youth Theater or Maine State Music Theatre don’t disappear like Portland’s Port City Music Hall, which announced late last month that it was closing permanently. 

“It’s heartbreaking to see these things go away,” Poole said. “Don’t just support us, support local theater… These are the things that bring us together as a group.” 

“It’s a precarious time for live performance,” Adolf added. “We hope people will dig deep and realize just how important it is for a place like The Theater Project to stay in business.” 

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