Maine’s Celebration Barn awakens students and audiences to life through theater

In Maine Insights – Article and photos by Ramona du Houx

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The first stage of the Celebration Barn experience is getting there. After negotiating countless side roads, one takes a turn down a semi-paved road and another down a rocky lane. There, in 11 acres of woods, far from the maddening crowd, lies a red restored horse barn where unique performances await the traveler, whether one is a participant in the non-profit’s workshops or someone who enjoys great theater.

Discovering the Barn is like coming across another world, a summer theater Shangri-La, as the atmosphere the performers and instructors exude is all encompassing. They greet you with enthusiasm, and excitement in their eyes sparked by the energy from working together in intensive workshops. They welcome you into their community with open arms, into one big functional family. But the majority of these thespians, writers, directors and producers only just met weeks before.

The connectedness that has been established during those weeks binds these artists to one another and becomes key to their successful individual and collaborative scripts that they act out in sold out community performances.

“Here, artists are encouraged to do work that is uniquely their own. Living and working alongside one another, while getting to totally unplug from daily demands, allows artists to go deep into their creative process. Developing a shared vocabulary, embracing each other’s differences and strengths, and supporting one other in stepping outside one’s comfort zone creates a very dynamic, safe atmosphere,” said Amanda Huotari Executive Artistic Director of Celebration Barn.

The artists are inspired by instructors who bring out their hidden talents while immersing them into the magical world of the theater.

“Most performers come to Celebration Barn with a desire to take their own work in new directions and uncertainty about how to do it. The Barn provides tools, support, community, and the time and space to rigorously explore and create,” said Huotari, who has been with the EAD since 2007. “We help bring people to the next level of personal and professional development. We encourage artists to be life long learners and risk takers. While the creative process is transformational, the focus is always on making new work in order to connect with audiences in meaningful ways.”

The Barn’s creative inspiration has spread to local communities in the area, making the theater a resource as well as an icon.

“This community has a tremendous resource in Celebration Barn. I grew up here and know first hand the power that exposure to the Barn’s artists can have. My professional life in theater was directly inspired by an artist from Celebration Barn coming to visit my 6th grade classroom,” said Huotari, who has lived in Europe performing on the stage as well as in the U.S. and teaches at the Barn.

“This summer we partnered with a local program to offer theater classes for kids. We toured a new project, The Celebration Barn Road Show, to numerous local events and organizations to offer the public shows and free workshops. We’ve also introduced a new series of family matinees and added music concerts.”

Big names travel far to perform in this theater Shangri-La.

“This season we’re presenting artists including juggler Thom Wall who’s currently touring with Cirque du Soleil, Avner Eisenberg who solo show ran on Broadway, and physical comedian Rob Torres who has won accolades world-wide,” added Huotari.

Many Mainers living outside of South Paris and its surrounding communities would be pleasantly surprised if they came across the Barn. Its seclusion has never been a real obstacle for them. In fact it’s an asset that adds to its ambience as classes continue to be filled.

“Many folks first learn about the Barn by world of mouth. Many first timers come through the door and tell us right away the name of someone who said they must come here. This summer we hosted performers from 10 countries including India, Brazil and throughout Europe. Once here, artists often become ambassadors for the Barn and that helps the Barn’s reputation keep growing,” said Huotari.

The Barn’s mission statement on their website states it inspires “creativity and community by harnessing the power of live performance” and that is indeed the magic that transpires while one watches the stage mesmerized. The actors, who herald from around the globe, come to the Celebration Barn to dive full-force into the theater arts, holding nothing back.

One of the highest impact courses runs for eleven days and is aptly named the Devising Intensive with instructors Davis Robinson, and Karen Montanaro.

Professor Robinson teaches at Bowdoin College and holds the Celebration Barn close to his heart. “It’s where I got my start,” he said, proudly admitting that he attended a summer workshop long ago. “I got hooked.”

During the workshop Robinson puts a mirror in front of students as he works with them on their scripts, highlighting the reflective power of self-discovery while refining their work with them. The students also learn methods for imaginative theater problem solving, while they develop their material.

Montanaro is like a motherly sage who awakens students to movement. During the skits all the performers were totally conscious of their bodies, knowing their limitations and knowing how to express emotion through them. Their soul presences could be palpably felt, making the stage come alive. After the first act left the stage I understood why they called this “an immersive physical theater center.”

Karen is the wife of the Celebration Barn’s founder Tony Montanaro, who passed away in 2002. Since 1972, he developed and nurtured the barn into a world-renowned theater school for mime, improvisation, storytelling, and other performing arts, with Karen at his side. “It’s quite a legacy to continue,” said Montanaro.

There were a number of monologues performed at the end of the Devising Intensive workshop where students willing imparted personal experiences from childhood, memories most of us would hide away trying never to address. By bringing these raw truths to the stage the performers transmitted an honesty that could only come from having lived these realities first hand. Needless to say they were moving bringing tears to many eyes.

Some artist’s individual pieces were meant to challenge everyday perceptions of what we think is “normal.” Each performer chose their own way to wake-up the audience, which was a breath of fresh air.

In one work an actor playing the part of a Martian talks about his time on Earth, how he fell in love and dealt with the death of the human he cared deeply about. Another has two generations meeting to practice yoga, while the millennial is the instructor the elder gentleman ends up being more instructive as they realize they both have emotions to share. A comic twist on Gollum, Tolkien’s creature that is enamored by the ring of power, is a women searching for the “precious” engagement ring, and still other skits explore relationships, love, genealogy, how modern devices rule our lives, sex and other current topics. There were so many societal layers addressed the combination painted a masterpiece that any viewer will reflect upon for some time.

Throughout it all the performances bridged different points of views, expanding perceptions and understanding, connecting in a way that only live performances can.

“Theater is all about connecting people— and more than ever, it’s important that we embrace opportunities to feel unified despite our differences of opinion. Getting in the room together for a shared theatrical experience is a good start,” said Huotari.

There’s little doubt some of these performers are destined to be on the big screen either as actors, writers or directors.

The Celebration Barn is a 501(c)3, also provides summer residencies for artists. Its summer performances continue until October. Their website: celebrationbarn.com.

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Top row (left to right): Davis Robinson, Karen Montanaro, Shaun Williams, Stewart Minor, Gregory DeCandia, Ashleigh Lynn Packard, MaryLennon, and Bill Gardiner

Bottom row (left to right): Kei Ching, Kahlil LeSaldo, Rachel Resnik, Jess Bryant, Rui Dun, and Kiarra Donnelly

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