My own backward gaze over the last decade of local theater only takes in the second half of it, so I've consulted a few veterans: the exhaustively knowledgeable theater maven Muriel Kenderdine, since 1991 the publisher of the newsletter Cast and Crew; Michael Levine, producing director of Acorn Productions (which until 2000 operated under the Oak Street Theatre umbrella); and the venerable actor/directors Harlan Baker and Christopher Price.
First, let's get out of the way the decade's losses. Among these, as Kenderdine details, were the Arts Conservatory Theater and Studio, Vintage Repertory Company, and the Reindeer Theatre Company. The Children's Theatre of Maine lost its former home on Marginal Way (though it has reinvented itself charmingly in a merger with the Portland Children's Museum). Come and gone is the outdoor summer theater of The Stage at Spring Point. And perhaps most poignant to many in Portland's arts community, based on conversations I've had over the years, was the closure of the Oak Street Theatre.
But sometimes tragedy and catharsis lead to happier consequences. A whole slew of actors found themselves artistically homeless after the closing of Oak Street, but the subsequent "diaspora," as Levine puts it, seeded many new ventures. The result, he says, is that in the area we now have "a dramatically different theater scene than 10 years ago, a pretty remarkable diversity of venues, offerings, and companies."
Kenderdine and Baker join him in particularly noting the rise of two excellent companies: the Good Theater, founded by Brian P. Allen and Steve Underwood; and the American Irish Repertory Ensemble, at the hands of Tony and Susan Reilly. Christopher Schario took over Lewiston's Public Theatre and went Equity with it, Kenderdine adds, and newer companies include the Fenix Theatre Company, which performs high-octane Shakespeare in Deering Oaks Park; Saco's Legacy Theater Company; and Out of the Box Theater in Lewiston.
As for venues, Deirdre Nice's efforts to open the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center have paid off in a theater space used by both its resident company, the Good Theater, and many other local and touring groups. Portland Stage Company introduced its Studio Theater space, which has been used by Mad Horse and AIRE, and increasingly for PSC's own affiliate productions. Acorn Productions moved into its new home in the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook, and this month will present the first performance of its own new Studio Theater.