Bill Raiten, the founder and artistic director emeritus of the New Surry Theatre (NST), died peacefully at his home in Blue Hill on July 28. He was 84.
Bill was born on Jan. 16, 1938, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father, Rubin, immigrated from the Ukrainian region of Russia in 1912, and his mother Gertrude’s family immigrated from Romania in the early 1900s. Bill attended Junior High School 149 in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Bill’s passion for theater began during this time, as his French teacher recognized his comedic talents and cast him in a role in a comedic play; the role was silent, as Bill did not possess the same talent and passion for the French language. The experience of hearing the audience laughing loudly and loving his character planted the seed for a lifelong career in theater.
His parents would not allow him to audition for the Performing Arts High School in NYC, so Bill attended Stuyvesant High School. While in high school, Bill secretly began taking acting lessons at HB Studio in Lower Manhattan, being able to afford the lessons only because of the help of his friends Susan and Lee Strasberg of the Actors Studio. He spent many evenings in the wings of various theaters watching Broadway performances. These experiences inspired him to begin writing and performing his own comedy routines and to take a summer job directing musicals at Camp Olympus in Parksville, N.Y. His childhood friend Sheldon Bisberg served as his musical director then, as he would continue to do for many more shows until 2018.
In the 1960s, after a humorously failed attempt to farm sheep with Sheldon on the island of Nevis in the West Indies (Bill also almost took Sheldon to the Amazon once too, but he’ll have to “tell you about that some other time in some other world”), he became interested in the back-to-the-land movement and finding inner peace. He began studying Zen Buddhism, initially moving to New Hampshire to farm and live off the land. After learning from a professor at New England College about a Zen community in San Francisco, Bill spent time with Suzuki Roshi at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. In 1969, he moved to Surry to be part of the Zen community of Morgan Bay and the associated Surry Opera Company. He continued to direct numerous theater productions and local high school plays through the Ellsworth Players.
In 1972, Bill founded the New Surry Theatre and Performing Arts School, which has remained an important part of the Blue Hill Peninsula community for 50 years. Bill always saw himself first and foremost as an educator, ever striving to help people understand their value and worth. He recognized every person as being filled with great talent and potential, and his influence spanned training professionals in the theater to working with at-risk youth here in the United States and abroad in Scotland. In recognition of his work as a director and educator, Bill was awarded the first — and to date, the only — Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award from the Maine Arts Commission in 2018.
In the early 1970s, Bill made the first of his many trips to the former Soviet Union (currently Russian Federation) with the Surry Opera Company. Bill would continue to organize and lead group trips to Russia with the New Surry Theatre, with the goal of promoting peace and understanding between the U.S. and Russia through theater and music. In 1988, he was invited to direct a play at the Komedy Theatre in Leningrad. While there, he met and fell in love with Elena Bourakovksy, his translator and head of the costume department at the theatre. Bill and Elena were married in 1990 in Ellsworth. Over the next 32 years, Bill and Elena continued to co-create the magic of countless theater productions. Additionally, they expanded their homestead into a vibrant small-scale farm, producing an array of organically grown produce for the community and making their Moxie-brand lacto-fermented products.
Bill is survived by his devoted and loving wife of 32 years, Elena Bourakovsky, his five adult children, 10 grandchildren, his brother Michael and his children of NYC and thousands of people whose lives he has touched. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the Bill Raiten Legacy Fund at the New Surry Theatre and/or to Hospice Volunteers of Hancock County.