Lee Rose will join Harpswell Coastal Academy to direct the school’s new theater program. Rose’s new program will center around introducing students to political theater, a concept that uses theater as a vehicle for social change. Photo courtesy of Harpswell Coastal Academy

Lee Rose will take center stage as the director of Harpswell Coastal Academy’s new theater program this fall, but he won’t be bringing Shakespeare, Arthur Miller plays or classic Broadway musicals to the school.

The new program will center around introducing students to political theater, a concept that uses theater as a vehicle for social change. Rose said he sees theater, especially in a school setting, as a way of communicating social and political ideas and practicing empathy.

“The artform has been both co-opted by some and banned by other governing bodies in order to promote their agendas,” he said. “On the other hand, theatrical art has also been used to fight against or undermine the power of oppressive regimes and individuals.”

Rose’s theater program will only be offered to the academy’s high school on Brunswick Landing, which serves grades 9-12. The program may later expand to the academy’s middle school campus, on Ash Point Road in Harpswell, serving grades 5-8.

Rose’s course offerings will range from acting to stagecraft and design to public speaking, according to a statement from the school. One of his missions as a teacher is to ensure no student feels their role, whether it be acting as the lead in a show or painting set pieces, is more important than anyone else.

“Everyone is equal in theater; nobody is more important than anyone else,” said Rose. “Without a lighting designer, actors cannot be seen. Without a sound engineer, actors cannot be heard. Without a costume designer, actors would be very embarrassed.”

Originally from New York, Rose developed a love of theater and education at young age with the help of his mother, an elementary teacher, and his father, a salesman.

“My mom used creative dramatics in her class all the time and my parents loved the theater,” said Rose. “They used to take me into Manhattan to see Broadway shows in previews. I also grew up about a quarter-mile from the Westbury Music Fair, the first round tent summer theaters in the country and my parents used to take me there.”

Though he initially entered college to gain a pre-med degree, he switched his focus to theater in his sophomore year. He received an undergraduate degree in English and later a graduate degree in theater.

“I think my parents were the only parents in the world who were not devastated when I switched from pre-med to theater,” said Rose.

He has since held nearly every role in a theater production, including director, playwright, stage manager and actor.

While Rose hasn’t settled on exactly what productions he’ll introduce students to, he said he intends to broach the topic of modern politics, a hot-button issue in recent years, to teach students how theater is used in everyday life.

“In real life, theater is used all the time, particularly in politics,” said Rose. “It’s important for us to understand what tactics are being used to manipulate our vote. An informed vote is what we need to learn and theater can teach that. The difference between theater and real life is subtle, malleable and important to understand.”

While the public charter school, which serves about 200 students from the southern Midcoast, previously offered improv classes to students, Head of School Scott Barksdale said this will be the school’s first established theater program. He said the program is “meant to spur conversations and help people find commonalities across divides.”

University of Maine at Machias students Theresa Maine and Jessie Roach, two of Rose’s former theater students, perform “The Moonlight Room” by Tristine Skyler. The play tells the story of two teenagers waiting in a hospital to hear the fate of their friend who suffers a drug overdose. Photo courtesy of Lee Rose

“We want to create an opportunity for people to understand differences and … give them a space to get to know other people and viewpoints and understand their own as well,” said Barksdale.

In his previous position at the University of Maine at Machias, Rose’s theater students performed shows such as “The Moonlight Room” by Tristine Skyler, which tells the story of two teenagers in a hospital waiting to hear the fate of their friend who suffers a drug overdose.

Though these topics can be difficult to discuss, Rose and Barksdale said introducing students to tough topics through theater gives them “scaffolding” for how to address them in real life.

According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 314 Mainers died due to opioid overdose in the first three quarters of 2020. In 2019, 318 died due to opioid overdose statewide.

While only 28 people in Sagadahoc County have died from opioid overdose since 2009, according to the Maine CDC, neighboring Cumberland County has seen 639 deaths caused by opioid overdose since 2009.

“Harpswell Coastal Academy is an ideal setup for delving into the real-life issues and dilemmas found in political theater,” said Barksdale. “We want our students to be confronted by the real world — both its beauty and its tragedy — and then figure out in what ways they want to be a part of it. High schoolers can do that — they don’t need things sugar-coated.”

“Theater is the perfect opportunity to teach life to people,” said Rose. “People underestimate children. They understand more than we think they do.”


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