BLUE HILL — From its opening days in a barn in Surry in the early 1970s, to the late Cold War when its members worked with actors in the Soviet Union, to the steady run of performances and classes it now offers, the New Surry Theatre and Performing Arts School has always punched above its weight.
A barebones organization, it has continued for decades thanks in part to the work of its founder, artistic director, chief educator and all-around ball of energy Bill Raiten.
But Raiten has had plenty of help along the way, most of it voluntary, and for the last couple years, the troupe has been taking on one of its greatest challenges yet: his handing over the reins to a new crop of teachers, directors, actors, artists and stage managers.
Their names and faces will be familiar to anyone who has caught one of the theatre’s productions, held on the second floor of the Blue Hill Town Hall.
Three of them, Dindy Royster, Becky Poole and Shari John, are directing plays later this year (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Doubt” and “Honk,” respectively). Others include Bryan Lescord, Robin Jones, Dena Sozio and Erin McCormick.
Then there’s Johannah Blackman, who began working for the theatre in an administrative capacity five years ago and has become something of a protege to Raiten.
Blackman has starred in many of the company’s productions, including “The Rainmaker” last fall, and she just directed her first play for the theatre, “Dancing at Lughnasa,” about a group of Irish sisters in the 1930s, which closes this weekend.
Blackman’s off-stage contributions have also been growing. A grant from the Quimby Family Foundation has allowed the organization to promote her to the role of assistant artistic director, and last summer she debuted a theater program for teens that will continue this year.
It will surprise no one who has seen Blackman perform that she’s been doing this for a while. Throughout her childhood in New Hampshire, she acted, directed and even started a theater group. By age 9, she had played Brigitta von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.”
“I was very serious,” said Blackman, now 33. “I had a crazy imagination. Through theater, I realized I could become other people, and I was hooked.”
But the world of professional acting didn’t appeal to Blackman, so she took a “long break” from the stage while studying philosophy at Connecticut College and later pursuing a graduate degree in psychology in San Francisco. Only when she moved to Mount Desert Island in 2010, where her now-husband is from, did she return to the orbit of community theater.
In a way, that hiatus, combined with her earlier experiences, uniquely qualified Blackman for her current role at New Surry Theatre, an organization that prides itself on the quality of its programs and performances, but also strives to democratize the arts for those in and around Hancock County.
On a practical level, Blackman has helped the company land grants from the Quimby Family Foundation and the Maine Community Foundation. That funding has supported Blackman’s own work, while also helping the theatre keep ticket prices low, provide financial aid for students and consider where it wants to go in the future.
Blackman also has embraced the organization’s broader goal of extending the performing arts to those of any skill level who have classes, jobs or other obligations, and may be anywhere from 12 years old to retirement age.
“I love watching the transformation people go through,” she said of amateur actors.
Raiten shares those goals for the organization he started more than 40 years ago. It began in 1972, with a series of sold-out performances of “Fiddler on the Roof” in a Surry barn. Though the venue was modest, Raiten recently recalled, the company still aimed for the sky with that debut show.
He particularly remembers the show’s complicated lighting scheme, which was created by Dwight Lanpher and involved a car battery, a wire and a series of matches that lit candles hanging over the stage. (Though successful, the display ultimately proved too distracting for some audience members, Raiten decided in hindsight.)
Since then, the troupe helped bring new life to The Grand in Ellsworth, staged performances as far away as Russia and Scotland and more recently taken up permanent residence in the Blue Hill Town Hall.
The troupe offers classes in acting, directing, dancing and theater design for everyone from middle-schoolers to visual artists to house painters, and its performances are one of the most consistent sources of entertainment on the Blue Hill Peninsula and in Hancock County.
Raiten has been deeply involved with all aspects of the theater, teaching classes and directing many plays himself, but as retirement nears, he said the organization has been working on its “succession plan.”
That has involved training Blackman — whom Raiten calls “one of those multi-talented people that you’re lucky when you’ve met them” — and all the other directors, teachers and stage managers who have become more involved with the troupe. No matter their prior experience, each has taken Raiten’s entry level improv class.
“The reason we’re doing this is we don’t want to hire directors who haven’t studied with New Surry Theatre,” Raiten said. “Even though we’re a community theater, we teach our directors to strive to bring the truth of feelings that the author wants the audience to feel.”
For Raiten, who has been very influenced by German drama teacher Uta Hagen, acting is not imitation, but the channeling of real feelings.
So when first-time students are nervously expecting to read from a script or do an embarrassing voice exercise, he instead gives them a simple exercise. A storm is coming, he tells them, and they must mime stacking sandbags to prevent water from getting into the home.
“Bill is really able to find anybody in the community and find what makes them tick,” Blackman said. “I just remember the sandbags,” she added, when asked about her early days as his student. “I remember thinking ‘This guy has a lot of energy.’”
The question facing the organization now, Blackman said, is how to get even more people stacking sandbags. Her teen workshop last summer was one attempt to reach a wider audience, but the group’s board is considering other possibilities too.
Like her mentor, Blackman clearly believes that theater can empower a small, rural community like Blue Hill.
“I want to make sure more people have that option,” she said.