The Maskers have a rich history of entertaining the community for the past quarter century. In the fall of 1987, a group of dedicated theatre enthusiasts met in the basement of the Abbott Room to participate in theatre games led by Basil Burwell, charging $1 per session. There were about 15 regular participants.
In November, Burwell organized a Christmas show that would tour at the local schools and grange halls in the area. The theatre group was christened the 'Maskers,' and the first official play was 'St. George and the Dragon.'
The Maskers have had several homes over the years, the first being the renovated Emmanuel Baptist Church from 1990 until 1992, when it was sold. After that, Burwell arranged the acquisition of the Belfast Moosehead Lake Railroad terminal and converted it into a theatre, utilizing the stage of the vacant Crosby Junior High School during the renovations.
Jerry Savitz, owner of Darby's Restaurant has been on the board for 18 years and a staunch supporter of the Maskers since its inception.
'I realized how enlightening it is when someone has the opportunity to get out of their routine and see another kind of world,' he said in a phone interview. 'And that's what happened at Belfast Maskers. Regular kids go down there and get involved with the Maskers, and their whole world changes. I've always been supportive of that.'
The troupe has performed dozens upon dozens of shows, including musical productions, one act festivals, original plays and more. They have garnered the respect and admiration of the surrounding community members and the organization have received awards. Burwell was given the Belfast Chamber of Commerce's 'Outstanding Citizen Award' in 1996 and the Maskers received 'The Business of the Year' award in 2003. In 2007, July 26 was declared 'Belfast Maskers Day' in recognition of all the troupe has brought to the city.
When the Maskers lost their permanent home, there was some question about whether they would continue to offer shows. While Artistic Director Aynne Ames acknowledges there are obstacles, she insists the shows will go on.
'The big challenge now is we lost out building, so we're creating a theatre every place [we] go,' said Ames. 'It's challenging for our technical people, but we've been able to get around that. As soon as we lost the building, a lot of people reached out. Belfast Dance Studio, First Church, and [the Town of] Searsport did.'
Ames said the stage that is located in the upstairs portion of the town hall was wonderful.
'There were seats, a lovely balcony, good sound system The administration couldn't be more cooperative or supportive,' she said. She said when they performed the winter show, the cast needed a place to put their costumes, and the town officials opened their offices to them.
'They were wonderful. The whole town is very excited that things are being brought to Union Hall,' she said. 'We have selectmen, the town manager the whole system of government coming to shows and they're wonderful.'
Community of character
Many people who attend a show see the actors on the stage, marvel at the lines that are memorized and may not give much thought to set design, lighting, costumes, props or the countless other parts that make up a stage production. But there is also the community support, the board of directors, business that donate money or in-kind donations or even just allow their businesses to act as ticket venues, sponsors and friends and family of those who help make this wonderful resource possible.
'People are very good about having things work for you,' said Ames of the Maskers' sponsors and supporters.
But it's also the community in the theatre. Ames said she was amazed by the dedication of the volunteers at the Maskers.
'I never worked for a community theatre until I came here. I needed a job, and there was a job here,' she said, adding in a note on the Maskers history, 'I found it frustrating at first, especially as I was (and as I write this in 2012, continue to be) a staff of one. As time went on, I began to be amazed and tremendously appreciative of the dedication these people gave; these people who were working all day, or keeping house or farming or caring for children or a combination of many of these duties that they would then come in and rehearse or work on tech for three or more hours after a full day's work I found that remarkable.'
Lilias Outerbridge had been with the Maskers since its founding in 1987.
'My husband and family moved to Belfast at the same time Basil and Nancy Burwell did,' said Outerbridge. 'I didn't know many people and there wasn't anything going on in Belfast at the time. When he [Burwell] started the theatre games, I just joined in, and I stayed.'
She enjoyed working with the Maskers, and only recently hung up her hat in 2011.
'Until you do it, you really don't know what you can do. I never felt I was myself [on stage], I was some character out there, so I wasn't self-conscious,' she said. 'You can come and work with us in any capacity that you want and absolutely any amount of time you have to spend on it and just grow from there.'
Maskers has an excellent internship that draws actors from across the country to Belfast, Maine.
The Summer Internship Program was born in the summer of 2006, when Ames decided to show an outdoor production of Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at the Steamboat Landing Park. She brought in four interns to assist with the production, including lighting, set construction, sound design and performing alongside the local talent, and continued the internships for future productions to this day.
'I have all these connections [in the theatre world], which allows me to recruit interns,' said Ames. 'We get wonderful interns, and we always have.'
She attributes much of its success to the fact that the interns don't have to pay to intern with the Maskers, unlike many acting internships across the country. They are housed by people in Belfast and often get choice roles in the productions. And again, with such a tight community they get recognition that they wouldn't get in larger cities such as Chicago or Boston.
'Here, when they're done [with a show] and go to the grocery store, people say 'I know you!'' said Ames. 'They get great stuff on their resume and make lifetime friends. And our people, instead of feeling overwhelmed by them, work even harder so they look seamless [on stage] and don't stand out.'
With technical interns, many of whom are coming from theatrical schools with all the technical bells and whistles, Ames said it was fun to watch them come to the realization that they would have to create much of what they desired from scratch. She said they have to learn to 'know who 'we' is. [When they say] We could hang this thing that will be you. We could paint this. They are usually overwhelmed. They are 19- to 20-year-olds; they have snazzy stuff to work with in college that you never get anywhere else,' said Ames with a smile. 'When they come here, it's 'Here's the board. Here's the cord. Here's the power go.''
She said that by the end of the summer, many of the interns have a new sense of confidence that they can do anything with what they're given.
The Children's Summer Camp is a great way for kids to become exposed to theatre, especially if they want to continue to work with the Maskers in the future.
'I like to work with the little ones. You train them in your own way and they know what to expect. We touch on all sorts of thinks and teach them the basics, so ea child who as never been in a show can learn,' said Ames. 'We have them work with color and with gels [for lighting], costumes, makeup all the special effects sorts of things.'
Here is the 2012 information for the summer camp, according belfastmaskers.com:
Belfast Maskers' Summer Theater Camp runs July 4 July 15, 2011
Under the expert tutelage of Angela El-Zeind, children ages 8 through 14 are offered a co-educational experience in singing, dancing, script development, costuming, lighting design, choreography, sound design, set painting, prop design, set decoration and more.
Camp sessions are Monday through Friday from 9:30 to 12:30. Camp culminates in a public performance by the children. This is a safe and inclusive environment where each child feels valued as a part of the theater community.
Cost is $175 for the entire two week program.
The coming year will have its challenges, and Savitz and Ames are both optimistic but are hoping to get some new blood into the organization.
'I had a whole generation there, and it's open. If the interest is there, if there are young people who want to grab the ball and run, we hope that is going to happen,' said Savitz. 'If you see anyone with a lot of energy and loves the theatre, the present board would like to talk with them.'
And with community theatre, generational gaps are not necessarily a bad thing. New generations teach the old and vice-versa.
'I have some younger friends who joined maybe five years ago who say the Maskers really became a home for them,' said Outerbridge. 'They always felt welcome and they've grown enormously, as we all have, into being able to do things we'd never done before. And having fun with this. There's no point in doing it if you're not having fun. It gives you a lot of self confidence when you go out into the so-called real world because you've done so many different things.'
Ames has her eyes fixed on the horizon and all the future holds.
Maskers 2012 Schedule
This is a listing of the 2012 season for the Belfast Maskers taken directly from their website. These dates and times may change, so be sure to consult with their website for up-to-date listings.
Readings of New Works
Plays selected from a pool of submissions by playwrights answering our call for new works!
Performances followed by Q&A with the playwright. Admission: donation only.
Belfast First Church, 55 Spring Street, Parish Hall Entrance
- March 16, 7 p.m.: 'Hattie' by Bundy Boit of Penobscot, Maine. A play with music about a former slave; powerful, haunting & funny
- March 17, 7 p.m.: 'Joe Patten for Senate' by Jon Potter (Rockport) and 'Mansion on the Hill' by Eddie Adelman (Belfast); Two one-act plays
Searsport Union Hall, Union Street
- March 23, 7 p.m.: 'Hattie'
- March 24, 7 p.m.: 'Joe Patten for Senate' and 'Mansion on the Hill'
Auditions for 'Steel Magnolias'
- Saturday, March 17, 2012, 10 a.m. Noon. First Church, 55 Spring Street in Belfast
The Maskers' second production, 'Steel Magnolias,' will cast for six women, ages 17-70+. Auditions will be held Saturday, March 17, from 10 a.m. until noon at the First Church in Belfast (Spring St. entrance of the church between Court and Church Streets, with the clock belfry). Production dates are April 19-21 and April 27-29 in Belfast and Searsport.
For more information about Maskers auditions, please call 505-0199.
A story of friendship and trust, 'Steel Magnolias' serves up a southern slice of life that's as warm and comforting as sweet potato pie. In the world of Truvy's local-homegrown beauty salon, six very different women come together to share their secrets, fears and love for one another while engaging the audience in hysterical gossip.
- April 20, 21 at 7 p.m.; April 22 at 2 p.m. Waldo County Shrine Club, 20 Northport Avenue, Belfast
- April 26, 27, 28 at 7 p.m.; April 29 at 2 p.m. Union Hall (Town Hall), Union Street, Searsport
USO Tribute Show
- July 4, 2012 - Belfast and Searsport
- July 20, at the Boathouse in Belfast with the Maine Celtic Celebration
'Brigadoon' (outdoor performances)
- July 26-29 at 7 p.m. Steamboat Landing Park
- Aug. 2-5 at 7 p.m. Mosman Park
'Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde'
- Oct. 25-28 at 7 p.m. Union Hall
'A Little House on the Prairie Christmas'
- Nov. 30-Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. Union Hall
- Dec. 7-8 at 7 p.m.; Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. Waldo County Shrine Club
Get involved. Either as a participant or even as a spectator.
'Most people, in my mind, don't come to theatre, they come to an event. The fact that it's outside, to see a cousin, a spouse, the pharmacist they wouldn't have otherwise come to the show. They come because they know someone, or heard that boy, this girl can sing,' said Ames. 'We welcome people of all ages. Don't worry, there's a place back stage or on stage. All they need to be is dependable. We have wonderful people to work with. It's a really amazing thing. Live theatre has a creative spark that nothing else has.'
For more information, visit www.belfastmaskers.com.