Brunswick library takes visitors backstage at Maine State Music Theatre

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BRUNSWICK — Maine State Music Theatre is staging its second production of the summer, “Beauty and the Beast.”

Down the street at Curtis Memorial Library, more than just the actors are taking the spotlight.

To honor the organization’s 60th season, MSMT’s history committee created “Strong at Sixty,” an exhibit which highlights the history of MSMT through nearly six decades in Brunswick.

Beginning when the theater group was established in 1959, “Strong at Sixty” takes the viewer through how the nonprofit has grown over the years and features costumes, props, artifacts and photos from numerous theatrical productions.

Following a recent soft opening, the exhibit will run through Aug. 31, with a formal opening and reception at 5 p.m. Tuesday, July 10. Admission to the display and the reception are both free.

Curator Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold said the exhibit is one of six special events the organization is doing in addition to the regular season this year.

Two years ago, MSMT had a different exhibit at the library titled “Maine State Music Theatre: Past, Present, and Future,” which she said was received positively.

“That was a happy experience and a lot of people got to see it,” she said. “So we thought this would be a good thing to do for this one.”

The display is separated into six sections, beginning when founder Victoria Crandall established the group, then called The Brunswick Summer Playhouse. All shows continue to be performed at Bowdoin College’s Pickard Theater.

Verdino-Süllwold said Crandall was a rehearsal pianist and a concert pianist “of some renown” in New York at the time, and Crandall’s parents had property in Wiscasset, which is what brought her to Maine.

“In the beginning she did nine shows in 10 weeks, which is insane,” Verdino-Süllwold said. “And she built everything here, so that’s how it differed from the touring stuff.”

Süllwold also noted the change in the theater’s budget since Crandall’s time, and said the founder once did an entire season with roughly $250,000, versus the $4.7 million budget MSMT works with today. 

“Money changes, but still, that’s exponentially different,” she said. 

In 1979, she added, the organization became a not-for-profit, which is also when the name changed to Maine State Music Theatre after being re-named Brunswick Music Theater in the ’60s. Crandall stayed at the helm until her death in 1990, at the age of 81.

“She was an incredible lady,” Verdino-Süllwold said. 

Also in Crandall’s section are a number of artifacts from MSMT’s early days. Süllwold said the history committee put out a call to the community for unique items in September, even though she said the group had “a lot of stuff” in its archives.

One of the pieces retrieved is a photo of Brunswick resident George Koucoules and his sister Tess performing at MSMT as children. Koucoules, owner of the local business George’s Painting, is now the painter for Maine State Music Theatre.

In addition to some expected pieces like one of Crandall’s early head shots, the first section also has quirky items like a license plate from her car, which Süllwold said was provided for the exhibit by a woman who drove and cleaned house for Crandall in her last years. 

Each show’s set and all props are now created at the theater company’s administrative building at 22 Elm St., which also houses two rehearsal rooms and a costume design area.

However, because Maine State Music Theatre did not acquire the property until the 1990s, Süllwold said in the early days Crandall and other organizers used space at Bowdoin to build things.

At that time, actors were also housed in Bowdoin’s dormitories, whereas today many live in renovated properties provided by the organization around town. 

In addition to highlighting such changes, the exhibit also shares some statistics about MSMT. For instance, there are more than 300 volunteers as well as 11 year-round and more than 180 summer employees, and the theater company hosts 90 free public events per year.

Changes in ticket prices are also on display – in 1959, a reserved seat cost between $1.95 and $3.95, versus between $55 and $85 in 2018.

Patrons can also get a look at costumes made by MSMT for past shows, such as a ballgown created for 2013’s production of “Cinderella,” and a wedding dress designed by Kurt Alger in 2014 for “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

The exhibit offers entertainment for kids as well, including a children’s section with costumes to play dress up.

Maine State Music Theatre’s educational and community outreach initiatives are also the subject of the exhibit’s other sections, and another part is dedicated to the organization’s future goals.

In the meantime, a graph in the exhibit shows ticket sales have been rising steadily in recent years, with Verdino-Süllwold saying most performances are “virtually sold out.”

The reason, she thinks, is pretty straightforward.

“I think it’s the consistent excellence of what they do,” she said. “I think there’s a real knack of knowing the community really well and programming something for everybody.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

“Strong at Sixty” a free exhibit on display at Curtis Memorial Library through Aug. 31, showcases Maine State Music Theatre’s evolution in Brunswick since 1959. 

Curator Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold stands in the children’s section of “Strong at Sixty,” a free exhibit at Curtis Memorial Library on display through Aug. 31.

“Strong at Sixty” features costumes, props, and photos from past productions at MSMT, including a prop pinball machine from 2017’s “The Who’s Tommy.”

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