L-A Loves Arts
How Lewiston-Auburn quietly became one of Maine’s cultural capitals.
- By: Meadow Rue Merrill
Photograph Courtesy Bates Dance Festival
When Chip Morrison began playing trombone with the Auburn Community Concert Band in 1982, the fifteen-member wind ensemble performed largely for an audience of relatives. This summer when Morrison takes his seat beside fifty bandmates, the audience is expected to number more than five hundred. Such is the newfound popularity of the burgeoning Lewiston-Auburn arts scene — a vibrant panorama that includes contemporary dance, choral music, independent films, theater, and visual arts.
No longer known for boarded-up mills flanking the Androscoggin River, the Twin Cities have recently become an axis for the arts, attracting audiences from all over Maine and beyond. “In the last decade and a half, there has just been an explosion in the arts, with new exhibits every month,” says Morrison, who in addition to his trombone talents presides over the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce. “I’m not the greatest aficionado of visual art, but the fact of the matter is there didn’t used to be any. Now you have something every month of the year.”
Indeed, the cultural calendar in Lewiston-Auburn is among the most packed in Maine, representing everything from season-long exhibits to weekend performances. Here are some of the must-visit arts and cultural organizations in the area, with a glimpse into each of their unique offerings.
221 Lisbon St., Lewiston
Several decades ago, when local artists lacked opportunities, the trustees of the Lewiston Public Library created a small, nonprofit organization to present concerts, films, and art lectures. Today, L/A Arts is one of the oldest and most influential cultural organizations around. Drive down Lisbon Street, the narrow one-way corridor that runs through the heart of the city, and its office is easy to miss amid the eateries and boutiques that have sprung up in recent years. But its work is everywhere, from the world-class performing artists it promotes to those it schedules to visit local schools.
“We have a big focus on arts in education,” says Odelle Bowman, the group’s new executive director. “This year we are bringing arts educators to all fourteen schools in Lewiston and Auburn. More than five thousand youth will have had a hands-on arts experience or seen a performance. There is no other city in the state that has this much focused attention on arts education for all its students.”
L/A Arts collaborates with local organizations to make the arts scene more visible, printing maps for the downtown arts walks held on the last Friday of the month from May through October, and promoting the popular summer-long Music in the Park outdoor concert series in July and August. Ninety-five percent of the artists it promotes are from right here in Maine.
“We are very lucky in this state to have a rich abundance of high-quality artists and arts educators,” Bowman says. “There is more here than most people are aware of.”
This fall, check out the “Painters, Poets, and Players” exhibit on display from late September through mid-October at the Callahan Room of the Lewiston Public Library. The show features the work of fifteen Maine artists, whose creations have been interpreted by a poet, composer, songwriter, or literary writer. Attendees go through the exhibit with an iPod. Fifteen Maine furniture makers have also built chairs to go with each work of art. The exhibit takes about an hour to complete.
Bates Dance Festival
31 Frye St., Lewiston
Each summer, hundreds of choreographers, dancers, educators, and students from around the globe descend on the park-like campus of Bates College to study and perform modern dance. The six-week festival, from July 4 to August 13, is one of the top three modern dance festivals in the country, and the audience is as varied as the performers.
“The people who come are a real combination,” says Laura Faure, who has directed the festival since 1987. “Lots and lots of local people — and when I say local, I mean a radius of sixty miles. Also people come from Boston. Normally this is not seen outside major metropolitan areas.”
Ironically, Bates College launched the festival in 1982 as an attempt to fill its vacant facilities while students were away on break. These days the campus bustles during the summer months with dancers from around the world who come to train and perform with world-renowned choreographers and teachers as well as the spectators who come to see them.
Each Monday night features a free lecture and performance. Tickets are needed for other events, including the Main-Stage Performance series, but prices are modest, beginning at six dollars. The festival format means a large variety of work is presented in a very short time. Those wanting to catch a particular performance can visit the festival’s Web site to peruse artist interviews and view videos. A particular highlight of the upcoming season is the international choreographer David Dorfman, whose group will be performing on August 5 and 6. “He is an artist we have a long history with,” Faure explains, “and he is going to show the final work in a trilogy about the sixties.”
In addition, the festival makes a large local impact by inviting area children, ages six and up, to attend its three-week-long modern-dance camp. “We’ve had kids who have gone onto college and studied music, to become successful, when they were really failing,” Faure says. “It is quite extraordinary.”
Franco-American Heritage Center
46 Cedar St., Lewiston
Just as the area’s once-prominent mills now support upscale restaurants and high-tech businesses, change has come to other well-known L-A landmarks. The green copper steeple and granite spires of the former St. Mary’s church still resemble a cathedral, but the light-up marquee outside the stone steps advertises an upcoming rock concert. That’s because when the Catholic Diocese of Portland closed the church in 2000, locals raised money to remove the pews and replace them with more than four hundred plush theater seats, thus converting the soaring, gothic sanctuary into a combination cultural center/museum/performance hall.
Three resident groups — the Maine Music Society, L/A Arts, and the Androscoggin Dance Company — now fill its stage with a wide-variety of performances. A brand-new function hall, for more intimate events, occupies the basement. But, like the city itself, the center struggles to overcome its past.
“Our attendance is up and down,” says program director Richard Martin. “Many are still not aware of our existence. The biggest challenge is one of perception. It is not simply a big old church.”
During August and September, the stage is rented out to area organizations, including Bates College, which uses the space for its annual dance festival. Celtic Tuesdays draw fiddle fans as well as some of the world’s top performers year-round. The center’s popular piano series begins September 16, and on November 19 ticket holders can catch a medieval feast. “There is a lot of activity inside these granite walls,” Martin says. “I mean, how many places have a medieval feast?”
The Maine Music Society
211 Lisbon St., Lewiston
From a small group of amateur artists, the Androscoggin Chorale has grown into a sixty-member volunteer chorus performing four concerts per year with the accompaniment of a professional orchestra. The two groups now fall under the umbrella of the Maine Music Society, which formed in 1991 to support the activities of its performers. Concerts feature an eclectic range of music from the Beatles to Beethoven.
“Good singing is not just left to classical music,” says artistic director John Corrie, who has been with the society five years and is also a lecturer in music at Bates College. “I am committed to celebrating singing in every possible way, in every imaginable style.”
The chorus started in the early seventies as a traveling ensemble, but it didn’t quite catch on. In order to focus on what it does best — performing — the chorus now makes its home at the Franco-American Heritage Center, which has ideal acoustics for vocal groups. The season opens on the first Saturday of November with “The Battle of the Blends,” an annual fund-raiser featuring the largest a cappella showcase in New England, and continues with a variety of funk, jazz, blues, rock, and other popular tunes, before concluding before Memorial Day. “We try to do things that really have an impact on people,” says Corrie. “It is our gift to the city.”
The Public Theatre
31 Maple St., Lewiston
When the Public Theatre opened in 1991 in a rented space at the nearby Auburn Mall, some scoffed at the idea of a professional theater succeeding in a former mill town. Twenty years later, the freshly painted former movie house has matured into one of the largest cultural institutions in the city.
“The community was thirsty for this,” says Christopher Schario, an actor and drama teacher who has been artistic director of the theater for eighteen years. With up to eight productions per season, the theater draws more than 17,000 patrons annually. Beginning October 14, it will open the season with an adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. The low ticket prices are part of the draw. Inside its newly renovated auditorium, adult patrons can catch a Broadway or Off-Broadway show for just eighteen dollars, kids for five dollars.
Echoing the transformation that is taking place throughout the city, the theater recently embarked on a $2.5 million renovation, which expanded its lobby and added a two-story addition, creating upstairs offices and a massive costume closet. The performers themselves mostly come from New York, arriving roughly two weeks before each show to learn their lines and rehearse. To keep up with changing times, the theater has also added more matinees to accommodate an aging audience. Schario attributes its success to local business support along with the wider renewal of the community. “I’ve lived all over the country,” Schario remarks. “I’ve worked at large and small theaters in large and small cities, but I’ve never seen anything transform like this.”
35 Canal St., Lewiston
An enormous line of wooden shoe lasts and photos of former mill workers are among the objects at Museum L-A, a relatively new entity chronicling Lewiston and Auburn’s textile, shoe, and brick-making industries. Sandwiched between the canal and the Androscoggin River, the old Bates Mill in which it is located still smells of old machines, wood, and hard work. But organizers hope to soon occupy the nearby Camden Yarns Mill — yet more evidence of the area’s growing support for cultural organizations.
“We just paid off the mortgage for our new home,” says Rachel Desgrosseilliers, the museum’s executive director, explaining that from the start, the museum has been a true community effort. “Board members donated 38 percent of the funds, and the community helped raise the rest.”
Museum L-A opened in 1996 as part of the city’s bicentennial celebration but only had enough money to pay its staff a few years ago. On a recent Friday afternoon, local volunteers prepared crafts for incoming Girl Scouts. Although the museum’s main visitors are school kids, it has welcomed guests from thirty-six states and eight countries. In addition to its collection of local antiques — including antique, hand-sewn, button-up shoes — the museum houses oral histories from nearly three hundred former mill workers. “We couldn’t tell the story of their work without telling the story of their lives outside of the museum, including the music they made,” says Desgrosseilliers, who was born and raised in Lewiston. She sought interview subjects at local fairs and invited them to share their stories.
“We asked them how long they worked, who they worked for, and we did fifty interviews with an official oral historian — everyone from the owner to the manager to the guy sweeping the floor to a mill girl.” History students from nearby Bates College completed another 139 interviews. Local musicians donated recordings. In addition to three exhibition rooms, the museum regularly offers a changing array of “behind the scenes” tours that take participants inside local manufacturers, including a small handful of the area’s remaining shoe factories.
Lewiston Auburn Film Festival
When organizers of the Lewiston Auburn Film Festival scheduled a day to celebrate the art of film, they expected a couple hundred attendees to view more than a hundred feature-length films, shorts, documentaries, and experimental movies on screens across the Twin Cities. Instead, the event drew more than a thousand patrons from as far as California, New York, and even oversees. As a result, three days of films are planned for next year’s festival, scheduled for April 13 to 15.
“We were shocked at how big it was,” says Joshua Shea, publisher of the year-old Lewiston Auburn Magazine, which spearheaded the festival. “We wanted to create an event that had not been done around here, something art-based, and the real thing missing in this area was film.”
The festival takes place at downtown restaurants, galleries, hotels, and even local churches — all of which are turned into ad hoc theaters. For the modest cost of twenty-two dollars, ticket holders can view as many films and lectures as possible and even vote on their favorites.
“I was very surprised by how professional it was,” says Steve Brown, of Freeport, whose daughter, Amy, won the People’s Choice Award for her feature-length documentary, There is My Home, Somali Bantu Farmers of Lewiston, Maine. “I have a business,” says Brown, a jeweler and owner of Brown Goldsmiths, “and I don’t have all that much time to take in such wonderful things. But it was quite lovely.”
Community Little Theatre
30 Academy St., Auburn
The success of the local arts scene can nowhere be seen more clearly than at the Community Little Theatre, the longest consecutively running community theater in Maine. After operating in borrowed space for more than seventy years, the troupe finally secured a permanent home after signing a ninety-nine-year lease with the city this past spring to continue operating out of the auditorium of the Great Falls School on an oak-shaded hillside in Auburn.
The theater now regularly fills its intimate, 350-seat auditorium and produces three musicals and two dramas or comedies per season. “Because we don’t pay our actors, we can afford to do big shows,” says artistic director Mitch Thomas, who has volunteered with the theater for twenty-seven years.
One of the biggest was The Wizard of Oz, which featured ninety-three cast members. The theater will be closing the summer season with a production of Jekyll and Hyde from August 5 to 14 at Lewiston Middle School’s auditorium.
- By: Meadow Rue Merrill