Merritt Holman prepares for a scene during a rehearsal for “Sources of Light” by Ciara Neidlinger and directed by Reba Askari. The Children’s Theatre – the longest running in the country – is turning 100. To celebrate, it’s hosting a play festival with short pieces written by adults and children. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Merritt Holman watched carefully as Reba Askari walked across the stage at Maddy’s Theatre in Portland.

“Just own the space, Merritt,” said Askari, demonstrating a slow pace and haughty demeanor.

“I can do that,” said the actor, nodding.

Askari is the theater artistic director at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, and this was a rehearsal for one of the 15 plays that will debut during an upcoming celebration of the theater’s 100th anniversary. That number is big on its own, but Portland is also home to the oldest continually operating children’s theater in the country, so this milestone feels particularly grand for an organization that has finally found a permanent home on Thompson’s Point after decades of performing out of truck beds, traveling trailers and too-small spaces.

To celebrate, the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine revived an old tradition: a play festival. The theater solicited plays that would run 10 minutes or less, and the pieces chosen will be performed throughout the museum next weekend, May 20 and 21. The writers are adults and youth (the youngest is 6 years old), and the casts are also intergenerational. Organizers said the event will recognize the theater’s history and also launch its next chapter.

“For us, it felt really important to think about new plays and look forward and to think about what kinds of stories we’re going to be telling for the next 100 years,” said Askari.


The Junior League of Portland founded what was first called the Children’s Theatre of Portland in 1923. The group performed at various venues in the city. In the 1940s, the theater put on traveling shows in the city’s parks. Maddy Corson, now 86, recalled seeing a production of “Puss and Boots” in Deering Oaks as a little girl. The details in her memory are vivid: the cool dirt on her legs as she sat under a sprawling tree, the overalls and boots worn by the actors, the excitement of the show.

“Those times at the theater made an impression on me that I remember all these years later,” said Corson.

She moved away but came back to Maine in her 50s and, one day, got a call on her bulky car phone while she was driving through Windham from someone who asked for her to help out at the theater. She agreed. At that time, the shows were traveling from school to school, and Corson was among the volunteers who helped pack up the sets and fold the chairs after each performance. The theater started fundraising and found temporary homes that included a storefront on Marginal Way, then merged with the Children’s Museum in 2008. The partnership made sense in many ways, but the basement at their old location on Free Street in Portland was still not ideal for the theater’s operations.

A 1940 performance of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” on the Children’s Theatre’s trailer theater, a mobile stage that traveled the Northeast putting on performances in parks and other outdoor spaces. Photo courtesy of Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine and Portland Public Library

“The theater didn’t have a proper home at Free Street, and a huge impetus for looking to identify a new place was this idea that the theater needed a proper home,” said Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine.

That home opened on Thompson’s Point in 2021. The 30,000-square-foot space included new exhibits, an outdoor play area and a state-of-the-art performance space with 89 seats where the theater could grow in a way that it couldn’t before. Today, Maddy’s Theatre hosts performances by professional actors and youth ensembles, as well as training for kids on and off stage. It is named for Corson’s mother who died just days after Maddy was born. Corson, who worked as a teacher and was previously chair of Guy Gannett Communications, the former parent company of the Press Herald and Central Maine newspapers, has been extensively involved in philanthropy across the state. She said she has supported the theater over the years because she felt strongly that young children needed opportunities to be creative and free.

“For me, I’ve watched the young people come through, and many of them are trying to figure out where they fit into life,” she said. “And they get it through theater. They come in, and they are accepted.”


The play festival slated for the centennial celebration exemplifies the capabilities of this new space. Shows will go on throughout the weekend in Maddy’s Theatre and at the various exhibits, which inspired some of the playwrights. Four were written by youth playwrights, and 11 were written by adults. Here are some of the plays and the people who will bring them to audiences:


Merritt Holman, 15, used to have stage fright.

Her mom used to work at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, and she liked to play and dress up in costumes there as a young child. But she described herself as an introvert and said she did not think she would ever want to be on stage. The pandemic, however, gave her an opportunity to try theater without the stress of an audience. She was part of her summer camp’s production called “Once Upon a Mattress,” which was filmed instead of performed live.

Rehearsal for “Sources of Light” by Ciara Neidlinger and directed by Reba Askari, right. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“It’s just so much fun,” said Merritt. “The community is a really big part of it for me.”

Merritt is now a freshman at Deering High School in Portland and involved in the drama club. She has also been working for nearly a year behind the scenes at Maddy’s Theatre, but her role as “Twinklebelle” in “Sources of Light” will be her first time acting there. Merritt and the three other cast members all play fairies, and the story is a window into a world in which every lightbulb is really powered by a glowing sprite. Merritt’s character has become overwhelmed by her important job and distanced from her friends, and she needs to find her source of light again.


“It connects to my real life, being a 15-year-old in high school and also managing all the other things that come along with life,” she said. “I’m very honored to be playing that part.”

There to help Twinklebelle find her way is Shimmer, the boss at fairy HQ played by Jared Mongeau. Mongeau is 30, but he was 9 when he first performed in “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” at the children’s theater. He later was involved in “Lion Hunting on Munjoy Hill,” which was written by a local playwright and told a story about immigrant experiences in Maine. He now sees a link between that show and the work he does today.

“I wasn’t aware of it then, but I think there were little seedlings of interest in being part of an original cast, seeing this thing grow and change and having my contribution to it,” he said.

Jared Mongeau and Rachel Henry during a rehearsal for “Sources of Light.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Mongeau started getting more involved in circus arts. As a teenager, he toured with Circus Smirkus. When he was 18, he signed on as a clown with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and traveled with them for two years. He later studied at Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre and reconnected with theater while working on his master’s degree. He returned to Maine and now works as a freelance actor and physical comedian and has done a couple shows with the children’s theater, including “Dragons Love Tacos.”

“Because it is for children’s theater, for young audiences, that doesn’t change the quality of the work,” he said. “There’s nothing unserious about it. In fact, to some degree, you really get to be more free and goofy sometimes than you might with other productions because you can let your kid out again.”

He said he was glad Merritt will be part of “Sources of Light,” and he also is excited to see the theater grow in ways it couldn’t when he was younger and it operated in a smaller space.


“It feels really good and right to be doing this show for the 100th anniversary, for there to be a young actor on stage with us,” he said. “If she wasn’t part of it, it would have a totally different tenor, and she helps complete us. This is a great representation of what the theater’s mission is.”

This experience could lead Merritt into a life in theater too. She is already looking at colleges where she could major in theater or maybe education.

“I want to come back or find ways to make what I’ve learned there into a bigger career,” she said.


Sloan Willows and Maeve Narbus were tired and sore from sledding on a snow day this winter. Sloan’s mom works at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine and suggested they take a break to write a play to submit to the upcoming festival.

Sloan Willows, left, and Maeve Narbus, both 10, are friends in fourth grade at Small Elementary in South Portland and they wrote a play that will be featured in the upcoming festival at the Children’s Theatre. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The friends are both 10 years old and in fourth grade at Dora L. Small Elementary School in South Portland, and they had been to the theater on a field trip. Neither had been in a play or written one, but they decided it would be fun. Their play was inspired by one of their favorite exhibits in the museum: “Illuminate,” a dark room where visitors can experiment with light in different ways. They compared one wall to a giant Lite Brite, which will be the backdrop for their play called “The Color Constellation.”


The story follows two friends who go on a field trip but get kidnapped to the top of Color Mountain. There’s a rainbow constellation, an angry moose, a curse, some giggling and a dramatic escape.

“They try to do what’s best for their world,” said Maeve.

It’s a good story on its own, and Sloan and Maeve said it also has a lesson for the audience: “Believe in magic.”

But writing a play for the first time was hard, even if they had magic on their side.

“It was really hard to come up with the right words for when they talk to each other,” said Maeve.

“It was really hard for both of us to add a little spice to it,” added Sloan.


But they liked the experience and said they might try their hand at another play in the future. Sloan is angling for a romance, and Maeve wants to write a mystery. They are excited to see how “The Color Constellation” comes to life inside the museum.

“Me and Maeve will be silently squealing through the whole entire play,” said Sloan.


Nathan Lapointe, 31, found theater at a moment in his life when he needed it.

He had lived in Florida and Arizona before he moved to Maine, and he said he felt “culture shock” when he arrived in Van Buren. But a teacher encouraged him to channel his energy into theater during his freshman year of high school, and he immediately loved acting.

“It really saved me,” he said. “It changed people’s perspective of me. I ended up becoming not bullied anymore.”


Lapointe studied theatre at the University of Southern Maine for a few years, but he ended up pursing a career in music instead. He is a conscious hip-hop artist under the name Unique Unknown and also formed a record label called Family Banned Records with a friend. He found his way back to theater during the pandemic, when a friend encouraged him to audition for a play that was being produced on Zoom.

His first experience at the children’s theater was in 2021 as the title character in “Frederick the Musical,” and it went so well that he got a job as a theater program associate. Now he develops and performs original programs for Maddy’s Theatre, incorporating sound and music into his performances, and he said he loves working with young audiences.

“Kids are very honest with their feelings and their emotions about what they see,” said Lapointe. “I love that honesty.”

Nathan Lapointe as Frederick in “Frederick the Musical” at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine. Courtesy of the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine.

He used recent research on social and emotion learning to write “The Emotion Song” for his program, and Askari asked him to adapt it into a play for the festival.

“I feel how I feel, you feel how you feel, emotions are so real, it matters how we deal,” the chorus says.

Lapointe was uncertain how to turn the lyrics into a play, but he thought about playing with his brother when they were growing up and decided to write about two brothers who get lost in the woods. They sing the song at different points in their journey to process their different emotions and find their way home.


“It’s a mix of having innocent fun, feeling young again in a sense, but also teaching tools and giving these kids ways to cope that maybe I didn’t have when I was young,” he said.

Lapointe will also direct two different plays for the festival: “Roller Coaster Caper” by Annika Johnston and Nolan Ellsworth, and “Speed Lobster Trap” by Eleanor Keniston. He was nervous to take on that new challenge, but he challenged a line from a poem by Maya Angelou that has inspired one of his performances: “Life doesn’t frighten me at all.”

“The youth, they’re going to take our place,” he said. “Teaching kids love and respect, teaching collaboration, teaching them how to deal with their emotions and stress and anxiety – I love it.”


Pearl Rockers, 6, is the youngest playwright featured in the Children’s Theatre’s centennial celebration. Photo courtesy of Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine

At age 6, Pearl Rockers is the youngest playwright in this year’s festival, but she definitely has experience at Maddy’s Theatre.

She’s seen at least four plays there, including “Blueberries for Sal.” But her absolute favorite is “Three Little Kittens,” based on the nursery rhyme of the same name. The kittens lose their mittens, and they must retrace their steps to find them before Mother Cat finds out. Pearl likes to act out versions of “Three Little Kittens” with her dad and little brother at home. (In one recent version, the mittens were stolen by a mouse!)


So Pearl was excited to write a play of her own called “The Bush Creature.” It took her a long time, but her mom helped her write down the words. In the story, a rhinoceros adventures out of the zoo but then gets stuck in some rocks. Two detectives have to find and help the rhino. She thinks the audience will like the ending.

“Because it’s happy,” she said (without giving too much away).

Pearl is in kindergarten at Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth. When she’s not writing plays, she likes to draw and play outside. What kind of plays does she want to see at the theater in the future?

“More ‘Three Little Kittens,’ ” she said.

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