New Surry Theatre founder Bill Raiten is remembered as a charismatic visionary who brought a taste of New York theater to small town Maine. FILE PHOTO

Eschewing a stethoscope for the stage, Bill Raiten lived fully and on his terms

BLUE HILL — The late actor, director, showman and New Surry Theatre founder Bill Raiten recalled his wife, Elena Bourakovsky, telling him she thought he was an idiot when they first met in Russia.

“You were always smiling,” Bourakovsky told her husband during a 2016 interview at their Back Stage Farm about lacto-fermented vegetables they produce under the name Moxie. Raiten, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native, died July 28. He was 84.

Bourakovsky and Raiten met when Raiten was directing a play for which Bourakovsky was the costume designer. Bourakovsky was head of the costume department at the Komedy Theatre in Leningrad.

The year was 1989 and Raiten had been invited to live in Leningrad as a guest director for the winter theatrical season. This invitation came from a visiting Russian director who saw New Surry Theatre’s (NST) 1988 repertory season. NST agreed to send Raiten to direct professional Soviet actors in plays that were not available to the Russian people before Glasnost. Raiten did not speak Russian, so he had a translator who turned out to be a KGB agent. It was true love for Raiten and Bourakovsky, who emigrated to Maine to be with Raiten. The couple married in 1990.

From teaching theater at George Stevens Academy in the early ’70s to recruiting reluctant local residents to give the stage a try, Hancock County would not be the same without Raiten’s influence.

“Bill had terrific charisma,” said Dindy Royster of Blue Hill, who has been on the theatre board for many years. “He could persuade anyone to do anything, and they loved it. I think he changed a lot of lives.”

“Bill’s impact cannot be overstated,” said Matt Murphy, a former acting student of Raiten’s and president of the New Surry Theatre Board of Directors. “Bill was a larger-than-life, profoundly dedicated visionary, director and teacher who founded New Surry Theatre 50 years ago and led it through the ensuing decades of growth and excellence. His work with New Surry Theatre was recognized by the Maine Arts Commission with its first ever Lifetime Achievement Award, and countless people have enjoyed and benefited from the fruits of his loving labor.” Raiten was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.

Raiten’s professional acting career began at age 16 against his mother’s wishes.

“My mother cried and said, ‘Be a doctor,” Raiten recalled during a post-award interview with The American in 2018. “I love what I am doing.”

Raiten spread his love of theater to countless people.

Jon Ellsworth of Brooklin recalled getting his sons, Oliver and Nolan, involved with New Surry Theatre when they were boys. The family performed together in the 2006 production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Raiten had cast Ellsworth as a Russian soldier.

“It was a cherished time,” Ellsworth said. “It was one of my best times as a dad. Bill created this environment and it was amazing.”

Ellsworth also worked closely with Raiten in 2012-13 to refine Ellsworth’s first play, “Stream Crossings,” which the New Surry Theatre performed.

“He took it seriously, so I did,” Ellsworth said. “We were both kind of like these blue-collar guys who loved plays. We both loved horses. That was the last conversation we had — about the Kentucky Derby.”

“I’ve just been thinking about how he was a new person here,” Ellsworth said. “What this place would be like if he didn’t decide to move here and go for it? Way more boring.” Raiten was drawn to Surry for the Zen Buddhism community. He’d moved initially out of New York to California to be at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. There he and his previous wife had their eldest child, Jennifer. Then the family moved to Surry in 1970.

That first summer of New Surry Theatre in 1971 resulted in 10 sold-out performances of “Fiddler on the Roof” in an old barn in Surry.

“I met Bill when I helped out with the stage managing in 1979,” Royster said. “He was doing ‘Carousel’ with the George Stevens Academy students. It was just fascinating to watch how he directed these children and produced a beautiful musical. He involved a great many people in a lot of shows.”

One of those people was the late Herb Mitchell, a Bar Harbor native who had a family and had established a practice in Bangor as a stockbroker before Raiten recruited him to take the role of Tevye in a 1971 production of “Fiddler on The Roof.” That sparked interest from an agent and an ensuing second career for Mitchell, who moved to Los Angeles and worked in TV and film for over 20 years. One of Mitchell’s last roles was that of Judge Rodney White on the show “The Practice” (1997-2004).

After that initial 1989 trip to what was then the USSR, Raiten was invited to bring 25 actors of New Surry Theatre to the USSR for a two-week “Performances-For-Peace” tour where they performed songs and scenes from American plays and musicals. NST then brought their Russian hosts and fellow actors and musicians to visit America during the summer of 1990. NST booked performances for their Russian guests in Maine, New York, Canada and California.

Raiten also brought back to life, with his lifelong music director Sheldon Bisberg, The Grand Theater in Ellsworth, which had closed for 20 years.

Former longtime Blue Hill Select Board member Jim Schatz and his wife, Marcia, had traveled to Russia with Raiten and the Surry Opera Company.

“On a personal level, Bill’s joy of life was infectious,” Schatz said. “He brought a little bit of New York theater to our small town on the coast of Maine. In some ways he reminded me of Harold Hill, the main character in ‘The Music Man.’ He knew Blue Hill needed a theater. I am sad for his passing and grateful for our friendship.”

“Bill’s passion, energy and knowledge of theater helped convince our Select Board that creating a venue for the [New] Surry Theatre at the Blue Hill Town Hall would provide year-round entertainment opportunities and enhance the quality of life for Blue Hill and our neighborhood of towns,” Schatz said.

Last week, the theater company celebrated its 50th anniversary. It held a gathering on July 24 to say goodbye to Raiten.

The past 15 years, the theater has held its performances in the Blue Hill Town Hall Theater. Four or five season plays are produced year-round as well as four or five staged readings, two sessions of the Performing Arts School and a summer musical theater camp.

Raiten wrote his own obituary at his wife’s insistence. In the obituary, which Raiten wrote in the third person, he explains the launch of his career.

“While attending J.H.S. 149 [Junior High School] in the East New York section of Brooklyn, N.Y., Miss Scarinzi, his French teacher, recognized Bill’s comedic talents and put him in a ‘French play’ against his will,” Raiten wrote. “The applause of the audience changed his life forever and propelled him into a life of theatre.”

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.
Jennifer Osborn

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