2015-12-11 / Community

‘Twelfth Night’ ensures summer to come

Local students stage fundraiser to bring back MaineStage Shakespeare
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Local youngsters perform in Kennebunk’s Lafayette Park during a previous season of MaineStage Shakespeare’s ShakesStars summer day camp. Productions of “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” will be staged at the Nonantum Resort and Wallingford Farm in hopes of raising the $50,000 needed to bring MaineStage Shakespeare back for a fifth summer season in 2016. (Courtesy photo) Local youngsters perform in Kennebunk’s Lafayette Park during a previous season of MaineStage Shakespeare’s ShakesStars summer day camp. Productions of “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” will be staged at the Nonantum Resort and Wallingford Farm in hopes of raising the $50,000 needed to bring MaineStage Shakespeare back for a fifth summer season in 2016. (Courtesy photo) KENNEBUNK — All the world may be a stage, and all the men and women upon it merely players, but a group of local students is working hard to ensure the curtain never comes down, so that generations of kids to come can learn the art of the Bard.

For five years, MaineStage Shakespeare has produced plays in Lafayette Park and other venues around the Kennebunks, featuring a cast and crew of about a dozen young theater professionals who come up from New York City for the summer season. The shows are free because, in the words of company founder Chiara Klein, “theater is a right, not a privilege.”

However, that philosophy has hindered the nonprofit somewhat and in 2014, it hit what Kennebunk resident Rob Bartlett calls “a crisis point.” In need of $25,000 to pull off another year, MaineStage was saved in no small part due to the efforts of its youngest members.

Each year, MaineStage conducts a day camp in partnership with the Kennebunk Department of Recreation, in which local youngsters get to study and perform the works of William Shakespeare alongside professionally trained actors. This past summer, about 150 kids took part in at least one of six weeklong sessions. That was made possible because, last fall, seeing their beloved program in danger, a few dozen youngsters rallied. They set up a booth at the local farmers market, asked for donations and even staged impromptu performances of what they’d learned at camp. And the effort paid off. The kids raised $600 in one day’s work, not to mention what they collected in smaller amounts throughout the drive, while an anonymous angel donor came through to cover the balance of the remaining need – about $17,000.

The experience also led MaineStage to create a local board of directors, which Bartlett now chairs, to keep the company going while its staffers are back on the boards, trying to earn their livings off Broadway.

However, as Bartlett notes, the art of fundraising is rarely a One Act affair. Again, this year, he said on Monday, MaineStage needs an influx of cash to ensure its seasonal return. And, once again, it is the kids who are rising to the challenge.

On Monday, Dec. 7, the ShakesStars students staged an abridged version of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” to raise funds for the company. A second show will be Sunday, Dec. 13, at Wallingford Farm, with more planned early in the new year.

There is no admission fee to see the show. The students are simply asking for whatever donation attendees are willing to make and all proceeds will go toward ensuring a sixth season for the Maine- Stage Shakespeare summer theater camp.

The student production was abridged and directed by Bartlett’s daughter, Jessica, who not only plays a part but, in the best tradition of the-show-must-goon, took on a second role after one of her peers had to drop out.

“MaineStage Shakespeare has changed my life in a way that’s really awesome and important to me,” she said. “The way they teach Shakespeare makes it really fun and exciting, rather than staring at a book for three hours trying to figure out what one monologue means, and being completely confused by it.”

Jessica Bartlett admits that, apart from “Romeo and Juliet,” she knew little of Shakespeare when she was 8 and Maine- Stage launched its first season. But now, having been a regular camp participant, she says she’s come to appreciate his “amazing” literary accomplishments, as well as the “life lessons” contained in each play.

However, the benefit of the ShakesStars camp, she says, is more practical.

“Some of my friends, they were completely shy. They’d never go up to anyone to start a conversation. You’d have to talk to them first,” she explained. “But now, they’ll go up to an adult, even, and start having a giant conversation. They’ve blossomed because of MaineStage Shakespeare, from shy little kids to these mature, outgoing people, and it’s amazing what they do.”

About a dozen students are part of the most recent, amazing effort.

“We’ve put in probably at least 50 hours, probably more,” toward producing their abridged version of “Twelth Night,” Jessica said, counting costuming, set work and dealing with venues, in addition to rehearsal time.

The show, which normally runs more than two hours, has been cut down to about 45 minutes, Jessica said. The reason, she notes, is to keep the best bits and excise the rest, in order to retain the interest of children. The hope, she said, is not only to attract donors, but to entice future campers.

“I want every kid to be able to experience Shakespeare in the way all of us have,” she said, pointing in particular to a fight scene in “Twelfth Night” between Viola (posing as Cesario) and the cowardly Sir Andrew that, she said, is “total chaos, just insane,” making it a sure bet to awe youngsters left cold by staid words on a page.

Although his children have been regular participants in the ShakesStars program, Rob Bartlett said the biggest thrill may be the latest effort, in which they and their peers have transformed from students of Shakespeare to student ambassadors, and even instructors themselves, of the art form.

“This is a passionate group of kids who believe so strongly in the program that they’ve taken this on themselves,” he said. “I really can’t stress enough that very few adults have had anything at all to do with this.”

According to Bartlett, it takes about $75,000 to fund MaineStage Shakespeare each summer. About one-third of that comes in summer camp fees, which cost $165 per session. Another third is raised in corporate and business donations, while the rest comes from private giving. That means the company is looking at a $50,000 need for next year.

“One of the reasons we’ve struggled financially, I think, is because people don’t realize that we’re not supported by some large corporation or extremely rich person,” Klein said. “What we really rely on is donations of $25, or $50, or $100 at a time to make what we do possible.”

Still, despite the starting deficit again this year, Klein hesitates to say the program may not come back.

“I don’t want to fear-monger, but that’s always a concern,” she said. “However, the difference is that we’ve gone in the past year from a group run mostly by me and my co-founders, with a small group of people doing the bulk of the work, to one in which a lot of local community people have stepped up. We have a really committed local board now that is working really hard to try to ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the organization, so that we’re not just going year-to-year in dire straits feeling like we have to beg for money.”

However, that said, Klein acknowledges that, with most of the MaineStage Shakespeare’s funding spent to pay and house the help, artists chosen specifically for their talent to teach as well as they perform, and their ability to build a rapport with young students, “we’re not going to ask them to come up if we can’t pay them.”

And while the adult board continues to work through the logistics of building a long-term endowment, that’s where the kids come in. That they’d give up so much of their time to try and raise money for the program is, Klein said, “humbling and extraordinary.”

But, at this point, Klein says she’s not surprised to find such commitment in the Kennebunks.

Klein, a New York native, admits that, until founding MaineStage fresh out of Dartmouth College, she’d never set foot in Kennebunk. The location was chosen because her two co-founders had summered in the area, she says, and it seemed a place in need of a residential theater troupe that could give opportunities to young actors, while also serving to inspire kids to at least a keen interest of, if not a career in, the performing arts.

“I got lucky that my co-founders knew the area,” she said. “But the reason MaineStage Shakespeare has worked out so well is because of the community. I may not have started out as a local, but I feel every summer when I go there like I am a local. I wouldn’t move it any place else. Performing there is really an idyllic setting, it’s kind of a magical thing, but really, it’s the people in the area who are so wonderful that make it work.”

Klein could probably be forgiven if, with a local board now in place and her co-founders having already moved on, she too set her sights on other things. After all, she’s currently deep into an MBA at Harvard University, from which she spoke on Monday.

“I’m probably not going to be around MaineStage forever,” she said, “but I hope we can set it up to have a life of its own, and I’m committed to sticking around for as long as that takes.”

Apart from the red ink, MaineStage has become, Klein said, everything she hoped it would be – an “enriching symbiosis” between not only the company and the community, but between the actors and their day camp students.

“It’s really hard to explain if you don’t see it,” Rob Bartlett agreed, “but the kids really develop relationships with the actors that come up. They form these bonds and there are always tears on both sides, from the actors and the kids, at the end of every season.

“That’s why I’m doing this,” he said. “This program is really an education program. The impact I’ve seen not only on my kids, but other kids in the community, has been incredible. The fact that we also get to see professional actors performing Shakespeare in the park is really just a side benefit.”

And for Jessica and her peers, MaineStage and the ShakesStars camp has made an indelible mark.

“I don’t know yet what I’m going to do for a career, but I know now theater is always going to be a part of my life,” she said. “That’s why I want to help make sure this program can go on.”

See the show

The ShakeStars students will perform a version of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” – abridged, directed by and starring area middle school and high school students – at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 13, at Wallingford Farm, 21 York St. in Kennebunk. There is no admission. The students are asking for whatever donation attendees are willing to make and all proceeds will go toward ensuring a sixth season for the MaineStage Shakespeare summer theater camp.

Anyone unable to attend who would like to support the program can make a tax-deductible donation on the nonprofit’s website, mainestageshakespeare.com.

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