Belfast Maskers premiere ‘Spider Creek’

Holiday theater, by design

By Dagney C. Ernest | Nov 28, 2012
Photo by: Erik Perkins Eliza (Katie Glessner) and her daughter Abby (Grace Underhill) cheer up their young visitor, Clarissa Bull (Dana Wilson, far right), away from home at Christmastime, in “The Three Wise Men of Spider Creek.”

With no permanent stage of its own, the well-established Belfast Maskers has spent its 25th anniversary season in pioneer mode, traveling productions around town and up to Searsport. So it is fitting it will wrap up 2012 with a show that celebrates the values of making do despite the odds, as a family and as a community.

The show, “Three Wise Men of Spider Creek,” is set in the late 19th century, but was written this year as a collaboration of Maskers artistic director Aynne Ames of Belfast and renowned Maine playwright Bundy Boit of Penobscot. It runs about an hour, includes four musical numbers and is described as reminiscent of “Little House on the Prairie.” In fact, it began as an adaptation of the Laura Ingalls Wilder novels, which Ames first read at age 8 and returns to every four years or so.

“You have to go through the Laura Ingalls Wilder Trust, of course, and we found they were so specific about every detail that we said, well, let’s do our own thing,” said Ames.

Having put in some time to research the time period and rural Minnesota location, Ames and Boit decided to set their tale there; however, the play’s Perkins family originally came from Maine and will return to the Pine Tree State for a sequel. The family is comprised of a father, mother and three children, age 9 to 14 — two daughters and a son. The cast of characters also includes members of neighboring farmer families.

“These are characters living on the prairie, with no electricity and the comforts of today. It’s set during the holiday season,” said Boit.

Ah, the holiday season, a challenge of theatrical choices for both theater companies and audiences. Ames was very clear on what she wanted — something an hour long, good for young ones’ attention spans and their parents’ busy schedules; something a school system might find just the ticket for that time of year when students need both education and diversion.

Boit is known for plays about historical subjects, so the setting and lifestyle of “Spider Creek” is well researched. Ames had a narrative thread in mind: an exploration of self-efficiency that recognizes the inter-dependence of neighbors, the value of living in concert with nature and a time when children made substantive contributions to the “business” of families.

“She’s a writer; I’m a storyteller,” said Ames.

“We’re very evenly split, so we contribute equally and that’s really fun to work with,” said Boit, who added she finds it exhilarating to work with Ames, who has had “so much exposure to directing and reading plays.”

The two met years ago when Ames attended a production of Boit’s play about Harriet Tubman. When Boit decided to revise her play “Hattie,” based on the life of “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girls” author Hattie Jacobs, about a year ago, she remembered Ames.

“I thought, who can I go to? She did an amazing job in short order and we thought, this is fun,” said Boit, whose “Coming Home” was produced some years back at Waldoboro’s Waldo Theatre.

Next season, Ames hopes to stage Boit’s “Breaking the Circle,” about social reformer Margaret Sanger. All of Boit’s works include music, and she usually writes original songs for them. But “Spider Creek,” in keeping with its educational bent, features traditional folk songs that everyone will know, said Boit, accompanied by cast members on guitar and harmonica.

“They’ll be stamping their feet … it’s a rollicking good time,” Boit said.

“The Three Wise Men of Spider Creek” will roll into Searsport’s Union Hall Friday and Saturday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at 7 p.m.; and Belfast’s First Baptist Church Saturday, Dec. 8 at 2 and 7 p.m. Seating at the latter is limited; Ames recommends reserving or buying advance tickets for both sites, given there are only five public performances for show that is geared to meet a real need this time of year.

“You can only do Scrooge so many times and once you’ve brought a little child to the ‘Nutcracker,’ what do you do?”, Ames said.

In fact, the Maskers have been contacted several times about bringing “Spider Creek” to other sites; the troupe agreed to book-end its public run with private shows at the Grand Auditorium in Ellsworth and for the Hope/Appleton/Lincolnville schools. Ames hopes to get the play published next year as she sees a secondary market for such work.

This season since losing the Waterfront Theater has had its ups and downs, but traveling shows has been enlightening. Searsport’s venerable Union Hall, which has housed vaudeville and generations of community entertainments, has been a particularly good venue, both for the troupe, which enjoys being able to leave its set and costumes on site during a weekend run; and the town, which has been able to get funding for renovations due to the auditorium’s being in regular use.

Belfast has been a harder nut to crack, although Ames said every organizations has been fine to work with, “but none of the Belfast spaces are theater spaces, so things can’t stay or be stored on site,” said Ames. “Last Christmas time we were putting up the set at 5 and taking it down at 10; it just burned everybody out.”

Burnout is something “Three Wise Men of Spider Creek” is designed to avoid, for both performers and audience.

“It’s a real feel-good family show,” said Ames.

Tickets are $10, $5 for children younger than 13, and may be purchased in advance at Out of the Woods on lower Main Street, Belfast, or by calling 338-9668. Tickets at the door will go on sale one hour before curtain, but early ticket reservations are recommended.

“Spider Creek” will be the last production with Ames as artistic director of the Maskers. The troupe has announced a new venture, partnering with Castine’s Cold Comfort Theater, for another year of shows on the road. Ames founded the currently-on-hiatus Cold Comfort and will return to being its artistic director in order to lead the new endeavor — see the related story for details.

Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115 or dernest@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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