BLUE HILL — Two years ago, when New Surry Theatre founder Bill Raiten announced his retirement after 45 years, it was hard to imagine.
The idea of this dynamic presence — who recently won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Maine Arts Commission — not being part of the local theater scene was unsettling. Would NST-trained actors be roaming the streets jabbering lines from plays with no director to tell them where to go, which way to face and when to just leave?
Oh, the horror!
But mensch that he is, Mr. Raiten foresaw this possible scenario, and planned far in advance of his intended retirement to prevent it.
“There came a time when I realized I simply couldn’t do it all anymore,” Raiten said, then added with mock confusion, “Or maybe it was Elena who realized it for me.”
He’s referring to his wife, Elena Bourakovsky, who also is the head NST costume designer and set dresser.
In any case, in addition to his longstanding New Surry Theatre School for the Performing Arts, where generations of community members have trained with him for the stage or to feel more self-confident on the stage of life, he started to teach some of his acting ensemble members the fine art of directing.
Some of his early protégés were Rebecca Poole, who has now directed several plays including the excellent “Outside Mullingar”; Shari John, who most recently directed the musical “The Wind in the Willows”; Johannah Blackman, who directed “Calendar Girls” and is holding auditions for “The Papermaker” today, Oct. 25, at 6 p.m. at the Town Hall Theater, and Robin Jones, who is now in rehearsal for “Laura,” which opens Nov. 2.
It appears that his “retirement” plan is yet another successful Raiten production.
“Bill’s idea was to create a program that would continue the legacy of the New Surry Theatre,” Poole said during a gathering last week of three of her fellow Raiten protégés and the man himself. While Poole has directed several shows now, the other three will be sitting in the director’s chair for the first time for the January production of “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.”
Lori Sitzabee, who has directed the music for several NST shows and recently (along with Poole) starred in “Calendar Girls,” Erin McCormick, a Brit lit teacher at GSA, who, after a long hiatus, made a triumphant return to the stage in “Outside Mullingar” and Nina Robinson-Poole, Rebecca’s daughter and actor in many NST plays, will be co-directing the Neil Simon comedy, which conveniently has three separate but connected scenes.
Their first directorial task starts, this Saturday, Oct. 27, at 10 a.m. at the Town Hall Theater when they hold auditions for the roles of Barney Cashman, a man in midlife crisis hoping to get his mojo back by essentially making three booty calls to three very different women.
Although there are only four roles in the play, they say they hope for a big turnout and invite anyone who has ever sat in a theater audience and thought “gee that looks like fun” to come and try out.
“Good casting is so important,” Raiten said. “If you get it right, half your job is done.”
“Even if they don’t get a role, there are plenty of other important backstage jobs to fill,” interjected Sitzabee, who has been a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker herself.
Asked what it is that sets NST apart from most amateur theater companies, almost in unison they said “truth” and then, mysteriously, “AAA.”
They are not, it seems, talking about emergency road service.
“In my classes I call it the three A’s: Author, Actor and Audience,” Raiten explained. “The director needs to find out what the author is trying to say, then it’s the director’s job to help the actor convey the author’s message to the audience in the most honest way.”
“That’s an easy thing for Bill to say. It’s something that comes naturally to him,” Poole said. “But codifying his method, learning what distinguishes it, and ultimately his plays, is a real learning process.”
There is no wrong way to direct. Rather, Raiten says he encourages his student directors to find what works best for them.
“Uta Hagen once said that the word ‘amateur’ means love, enthusiasm,” Raiten said. “That’s what I’m after, however you get there.
“But don’t print that, I could have misquoted her; Uta might have been wrong!”
Robinson-Poole, the youngest of the group, quickly Googles the French meaning of “amateur” and gives him the OK nod. For her the exciting thing about her turn at directing is the opportunity to understand a play as a whole work, rather than dwell on her own role in it.
Yes, her mother agreed. “Acting is like a slice of the cake; directing is the whole thing.”
McCormick who was a relatively quiet presence at this gathering, acknowledged that she had theatrical training in college, but stopped acting when she became overwhelmed by stage fright. She hopes her personal experience with this obstacle will help nervous auditioners and actors find their way past it.
Just as they expect to support the actors whom they cast for their scenes, these first-time directors know they can call on Raiten to consult with and support them if they run into difficulties.
For instance, Ms. Poole said she has had trouble with the kissing and/or killing scenes in plays she has directed and has called Bill for help.
“There’s always something new to learn,” she advised the three directors in waiting.
All this teaching and consulting has added up to a pretty busy “retirement” for Raiten — much to his wife’s consternation — but he has no complaints.
“Hey!” he exclaimed with a broad grin “if I’m teaching, if I’m helping, I’m in heaven!”
Auditions for the “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” are this Saturday, Oct. 25, at the Town Hall Theater, starting at 10 a.m. No prepared monologues are required. For more information about the new NST season, go to www.newsurrytheatre.org.