Marvin Merritt IV had big dreams and big ideas when he graduated from Harvard University last year. They did not involve Deer Isle.
“I was intending to head to New York or L.A. or Germany, and I was going to either do experimental theater in Berlin or vie for Broadway in New York or film work in L.A.,” said the 2016 graduate of Deer Isle-Stonington High School.
Instead, Merritt, 23, has spent the pandemic producing theater back home, and last month he and his creative partner, fellow Harvard graduate Anna Fitzgerald, drew 1,000 people to three performances of their original play “Do Not Move Stones,” a retelling of an Aeschylus play, “The Suppliants.” They staged it at the Settlement Quarry in Stonington, and considered the effort successful enough that they have formalized their partnership and formed the Isle Theater Company with a goal of producing at least two shows a year.
Berlin will have to wait.
Merritt, who called the circumstances “an odd blessing of COVID,” is part of a wave of artists who have come home to Maine during the pandemic, their creative lives and routines uprooted and enriched by the unplanned opportunity to reconnect with their original roots and muses. They are actors, filmmakers, comedians and painters. Some, maybe most, will return to their adopted homes when the pandemic eases to resume a semblance of their former lives and careers, but all sought the refuge of Maine and the comforts of home and community when the pandemic disrupted their lives and dreams.
Some may stay, or at least come around a lot more often.
“To have the opportunity to unite the community through storytelling, that is so exciting and meaningful,” Merritt said. “It energizes me and has definitely made me realize I can continue to create theater in Maine. I don’t have to wait.”
When artists come home, they bring with them the knowledge and experiences they have gained to share with their communities through the art they create, said Stuart Kestenbaum, Maine’s former poet laureate and a Deer Isle resident, who attended a performance of “Do Not Move Stones” at the quarry with about 250 other people. He called it “a smart, energetic production” that made good use of the space.
“You want people to go away so they can become who they need to be, but then return home and find a way to make art in their own hometown. I find that idea so moving,” said Kestenbaum, who watched Merritt develop his acting skills at the Reach Performing Arts Center and Stonington Opera House while growing up on Deer Isle. “Then he goes away, investigates the world and returns home committed to making art in his own town. That is the kind of cycle you want everywhere in Maine – not to have your young people never go away, but to return and be informed by all they have seen.”
Because of the pandemic, the cycle is repeating itself.
Filmmaker Sara Friedman grew up in Cape Elizabeth and lives in Los Angeles, where first-time filmmakers are a dime a dozen and where she has done nothing to distinguish herself enough that a production company might gamble its money on her. But that never deterred her from dreaming and working toward making a feature-length film in her hometown. A few years ago, she wrote a script and filmed a short version of her future-dream project, a film called “Heightened” about a woman struggling with mental illness.
When the pandemic brought her home, she raised $300,000 to make what she calls “the lowest of low-budget” feature films and mark her directorial debut. She stars in the movie with fellow Cape Elizabeth High School classmate Dave Register, who also came home to Maine from Los Angeles during the pandemic and started his own theater company, East Shore Arts.
“I decided I wanted to create more art in Maine, so I went to private investors to raise a budget,” Friedman said. “The vast majority of the money came from private Maine investors. Some are interested in the arts, and some are interested in keeping young people here.”
COMING AND GOING
Friedman, who celebrated her 30th birthday on the film set at Ram Island Farm, said she was committed to making movies in Maine, though she lamented the Legislature’s failure to enact more generous tax incentives for filmmakers. She testified in favor of a bill to expand incentives, which did not advance during the most recent legislative session.
“I want to make movies here, though I have to have part of me in Los Angeles and New York, because that is the way the industry is. But I want to make my art here,” she said.
Friedman began acting with the Reindeer Theatre Company in Portland when she was 6, then at Cape Elizabeth High School, where she graduated in 2009. She went on to study at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, graduating in 2013. Over two weeks of shooting in Cape Elizabeth, she worked with a cast of 18 and a crew of 25. She called it a dream come true.
“What you get in Maine that you don’t have in other places is location,” Friedman said. “This is a tiny little movie with the most gorgeous scenery in the country. People will watch that and go, ‘Oh, that is stunning,’ and they won’t think about the budget.”
Theater-maker Christine Henry also came home during the pandemic. A Winthrop native, she has centered her career in New York, where she co-founded and serves as artistic director of Royal Family Productions, a theater rooted in the ethos and diversity of its Times Square neighborhood. When the pandemic hit, Henry came back to Maine to a house in Readfield. When it became apparent that theater would be on hold in New York, Henry brought Royal Family north, along with its goals of diversity and inclusion.
She collaborated with a farm owner in Fayette for a barn production of “Anne of Green Gables: Part 1” in September 2020, and has mounted several productions across central Maine at the Franco Center in Lewiston and the Community Little Theater in Auburn. On Oct. 3, Royal Family will present “Fireside,” a theater- and dance-infused Halloween show at Cumston Hall in Monmouth. For all the shows, Henry has brought actors and dancers from New York to work with performers and presenters from Maine, creating both meaningful collaborations among artists and introducing artists of color to the state.
Henry wants to leverage the power of her New York theater company to create and encourage diversity in theater in Maine. The star of “Anne of Green Gables” was a person of color, as were two of the dancers in “The Ugly Duckling,” presented in August at the Franco Center. Henry described “The Ugly Duckling” as a mash-up of the Hans Christian Andersen tale and “Swan Lake,” with the script adjusted for a rainbow swan, who is bullied. It’s intended for middle-school kids and older.
One of Henry’s local collaborators is Danny Gay, artistic director of Monmouth Community Players, who has served as a producer, technician and actor. Henry describes him as her “right-hand man.” He will be among those on stage in “Fireside” in October, in which Henry adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and other literary tales into a Halloween play.
Gay said working with Henry has energized him and emboldened him to seek out more artists of color, like him, to become involved in Maine theater.
“I am so used to seeing productions that do not have much diversity in them,” he said. “In my time doing theater in Maine, I have experienced very few other people of color, partly due to the lack of diversity in Maine and partly because people of color who have come to Maine have not been encouraged to participate in theater. But as we have more immigrants coming to Maine from Africa, South America and other places, perhaps they will feel more encouraged if they see people like themselves in the productions.”
Comedian Marcus Cardona, 30, had been doing stand-up in New York nearly a decade and worked his way up to become assistant manager of a comedy club when the pandemic shut everything down. He returned home to Maine to live with his parents in Buxton – a life circumstance that he turns into a laugh in his stand-up routine.
Last summer, he began organizing Cabin Fever Comedy Nights at Thompson’s Point in Portland. He’s sold out 10 shows in a row, and hopes to again on Oct. 20. Like theater producer Henry, Cardona has found that coming home to Maine to do what he was doing in New York has been both gratifying and eye-opening – and unexpected.
“During last couple of years, Portland has developed a reputation as a foodie city with legal weed, and now people are recognizing Maine as a really good place for comedy, too,” he said. “It’s definitely made me appreciate Maine and my upbringing, and it helped me get in touch with a lot of other things. A lot of artists, especially in entertainment, they become too big and lose touch with their roots. It’s good for me to be back here.”
At some point, Cardona will return to New York, but he anticipates continuing to live and work in Maine, as well – though he likely will move out of his parents’ house in Buxton and get his own place.
For the painter Anne Neely, coming home to Maine during the pandemic meant fleeing the small apartment she and her husband share in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston and relocating to their longtime summer home in Jonesport, where they had room to spread out and where they felt safe. Neely is not a Maine native, but has been coming to Maine for more than 30 years, to paint.
In her retirement, she always hoped to spend more time painting in Maine, which offered her vastness, light and color. But the pandemic helped her realize what Maine offered in terms of allowing her to find a sense of calm during tumultuous times.
“We were in Boston in April 2020 and I was watching a show and they were explaining how to shop for and wash your produce and said, ‘That’s it!’ I looked at my husband and said, ‘Start cleaning out the pantry, we are going to Maine.’ And we did – and we didn’t return until we had to go back to get our vaccinations. We spent more than a calendar year.”
Neely spends much of her time in Maine now, and leaves only for business. “Because of my art, I still have to be in New York and Boston, but it has shifted for me since the pandemic,” she said. “It is just as important for me to be in Maine because it slows me down and allows me to really see things that make me a better painter and a better person.”
CHANGE IN VISION
Back on Deer Isle, Marvin Merritt is sorting out how the Isle Theater Company will function. He and Fitzgerald raised nearly $50,000 for their first two productions, collaborating with Island Heritage Trust and the Reach Performing Arts Center to present the performances. He is planning a budget, forming plans, making pitches – the nuts-and-bolts work of an arts administrator. He envisions hosting one big production each summer, geared for families, and a winter show that deals with, as he says, “slightly darker themes.”
Once he dreamed of doing experimental theater in Berlin, and maybe he will do that someday. But for now, Merritt feels grateful to be able to make theater for his friends and family and the people he grew up with on Deer Isle – and anyone else who wants to come along for the ride.
When the pandemic pivot is over, Henry said, she intends to continue making theater in Maine. She has always written her plays in Maine, and her experience producing theater in Maine has been encouraging enough that she is contemplating using Maine as a proving ground for New York. Both “The Ugly Duckling” and “Fireside” will be staged in New York, she said. She also is thinking about a summer theater festival next year, and would love to find a summer camp she could rent to bring artists together to create communally.
The pandemic has allowed Henry to think about Maine in new ways. She said the availability of large, affordable theaters where she can create new work is an uncommon luxury, making Maine attractive for her short- and long-term plans.
“Can we bring new work to Maine, try it out here and then bring it back down to New York? I am interested in what that model looks like. And my board is interested in trying to start a new play festival in the summer here in Maine, and create some sort of thing that long-term might look something like Williamstown,” she said, referring to the long-established and widely respected theater festival in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
“It could be stupendous, in a way, where people in Maine get to see the very first incarnation of something that ends up on Broadway. How do you plan a dream where you actually do this and people come? … It takes a whole lot of work beyond building a field, but that is what we are working on.”
That dream started with the pandemic, when Henry came home.