The cast of “High School Musical JR” rehearses at Schoolhouse Arts Center, which recently opened for the season. The musical will be performed at the Standish theater June 17-20. Contributed / Schoolhouse Arts Center

After a harrowing winter, Schoolhouse Arts Center is making a comeback for its 33rd season.

The non-profit community arts organization located in Standish was in danger of shutting down last winter. The theater lost about 90-95% of its revenue when it was forced to cancel its 2020 season because of the pandemic, board President Cristina McBreairty said earlier this year.

The loss, coupled with the cost of heating and maintaining the theater’s 100-year-old former high school building, made it difficult for the theater to generate the roughly $2,000 per month it needed to stay in business.

Thanks to the work of center directors, devoted patrons and volunteers and a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, Schoolhouse Arts is back in business for the 2021 season.

“We are so eternally grateful for the people in the Sebago Lake region,” said Artistic Director Zachariah Stearn. “If it weren’t for our community, we would not be here.”

“Schoolhouse has got the physical building to take care of,” said board member Diane Hancock. “I love the theater, and I didn’t want to see any community theater go away because it’s so valuable. It’s a big part of my daughters’ lives. I wanted to see the theater keep going because I want them to have that.”

A community-based  fundraising approach that included Facebook live events, a GoFundMe campaign and a weekly bottle drop-off generated roughly $9,000, enough to cover Schoolhouse’s overhead and winter costs, Stearn said.

When Schoolhouse shut down last March, the center, alongside many other community theaters, transitioned to online performances and events.

“This allowed performers to perform in some capacity, allowed directors to be creative and gave the audience an ability to see something in the safety of their own home, but the downside is that when you have thousands of theaters across the country moving to virtual platforms, it gets old very quickly,” Stearn said.

“Theater is a living breathing thing and different every single night, so trying to connect with audiences [virtually] is harder, but that doesn’t mean we were deterred by these things,” Stearn said. “We know that the theater is a resilient community … We have dealt with ice storms, being right on Sebago Lake, losing power in the middle of productions and leading cast members getting sick before opening night, and now we can cross pandemic off the list.”

Schoolhouse returned to the stage in-person for its 2021 season May 14 with its Truly Talented Kids show. The cabaret-style event was the theater’s first in-person performance in over a year.

“It struck me on opening night to see people in the theater for the first time in 15 months. Now there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s brighter than it was even three months ago,” Stearn said.

Schoolhouse does not plan to lift its mask requirement for the duration of the 2021 season and will continue to follow all CDC guidelines at its performances. Stearn said that the theater is taking all precautions in order to ensure the safety of patrons, staff, crew and volunteers.

Schoolhouse’s 2021 summer lineup includes “High School Musical JR,” “Elf the Musical!,” “Willy Wonka KIDS”and “Little Mermaid JR.” The staff anticipates operating with full audience capacity at each of the shows.

“Everyone is so excited to be back in the theater again. It seems like things are getting more and more back to normal, and we just have to be flexible with expectations and what we are able to do,” said Joellen Lemont, who is directing “Elf the Musical!”

“Elf the Musical!” is part of the theater’s Christmas in July, a festive event to acknowledge celebrations that families and communities may have missed in the past pandemic year.

“We have got a great layout of summer programs happening for kids this year, and I know that kids have been anxious to get back to the performing arts. Christmas in July seems like a fun way to get back,” Hancock said.

In addition to performances, Schoolhouse Arts will host 10 full weeks of educational programming this summer, Stearn said. For many Standish residents and community members, Schoolhouse Arts Center serves as a welcoming community and education center for families with kids and adults of all ages.

“Schoolhouse is a really special place to a lot of people, and I’m so thankful that it has survived this season. I’m looking forward to [seeing] where we go in the future,” Lemont said.

 

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