STONINGTON — Over a century ago, the words “Opera House” stood out in giant capital letters on the side of a large green building on Main Street. In the days before a bridge connected Deer Isle to the mainland, the billboard of sorts served to lure passenger vessels venturing from the south to the port town.
Steamboats from Rockland and Boston long ago ceased being Stonington’s primary source of boat traffic, but the shows still go on at Opera House Arts throughout the year. Live theater productions and concerts, movie screenings, readings and other cultural events propel the nonprofit organization’s mission to stage professional theater in an out-of-the-way town and to bring performing arts to a year-round community of roughly 1,000 people.
Opera House Arts also is in the midst of a national search for a new director after former Artistic Director Meg Taintor stepped down earlier this year to pursue other opportunities. Interim Director Peter Richards said the search is “going well,” and the organization expects to have someone in place this fall.
Richards, a native of Santa Monica, Calif., who summered in Stonington as a child, is directing this year’s Shakespeare in Stonington production of “The Tempest,” which is being performed at the nearby Ames Farm through July 15.
The outdoor show takes place at five separate locations on the farm, and requires the audience to move accordingly. It’s not Richards’ first innovative work of theater in Stonington: His 2013 production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” was set partially in a barn and partially outside. He credits Linda Nelson and Judith Jerome, two of Opera House Arts’ founding directors who managed the organization prior to Taintor, for letting him experiment.
“They always wanted to say yes to ambitious ideas,” Richards said.
Nelson and Jerome, along with Carol Estey and Linda Pattie, founded Opera House Arts in 2000. The Stonington Opera House has been around much longer: it was originally constructed as a music and dance hall in 1886 and was rebuilt after a 1910 fire. The theater began showing films in 1918 and served a range of functions over the decades, including as a roller skating rink and the town hall. Ownership changed hands a few times, and the last full summer of movies took place in 1992, after which the structure fell into disrepair.
When the four women embarked on the reopening process, the building was occupied by a family of raccoons. After significant restoration, it now hosts a diverse array of artistic programming.
Productions like the one Richards is currently directing employ largely professional actors, many of whom are from New York or Boston. Opera House Arts is an equity house theater, meaning that it employs unionized actors.
Richards, who splits his time outside of Stonington between New York and Los Angeles, noted that Maine is no stranger to a vibrant professional arts scene. With its rocky coasts and picturesque lighthouses, the state has long attracted visual artists. Deer Isle alone boasts dozens of galleries.
Matching the world of professional theater with the needs of a small community like Stonington is a unique task, and, Richards said, an important responsibility for the nonprofit’s new director. Maine-focused theater is one avenue and in August the opera house will premiere “I Have Seen Horizons: Ruth Moore’s Stories from Maine,” a show adapted from the short stories of the 20th-century Gotts Island-born author.
While certain productions rely on outside talent, others showcase local performers. This January, the opera house hosted Island Women Speak, a storytelling event featuring local women ages 21 to 91, who told their own stories of living on Deer Isle. The performance was such a success that it was repeated with a new cast and new set of stories in May.
Beyond highlighting the community, the nonprofit also aims to reach an audience beyond traditional theater-goers. The “Live! for $5” series during the summer presents hour-long family-friendly shows, with music, dance and magic among this summer’s spectacles. True to the building’s history, it still shows popular movies each weekend. “Deadpool” and “Oceans 8” were two recent featured films.
During the winter, when the seasonal inhabitants leave and the town slows down a bit, the opera house continues to show movies 52 weekends a year.
“To keep the lights on on Main Street and to show a movie every weekend in a small town in Downeast Maine is really special,” Richards said.
“The Tempest” is at Ames Farm July 11 to 15 at 5:30 p.m. It is recommended that audience members wear shoes suitable for traversing a mown path, and bring a jacket and bug spray. Two tiers of open-seating tickets are $40 and $25. Order tickets at www.operahousearts.org or by calling 367-2788.