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Theater group preserves past, creates a future in South Portland

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Theater group preserves past, creates a future in South Portland

SOUTH PORTLAND — Wednesday afternoon, Christine Marshall was on a ladder, sanding away the last of seven layers of paint that hid the natural fir grains of support beams in the old Hutchins Elementary school. 

Marshall, artistic director of Mad Horse Theatre company, is one of a half a dozen or so of the company's 30 member group who are "hard core and like chewing on saw dust and pulling staples."

The Mad Horse Theatre Company is working hard this summer to restore and renovate the historic Ferry Village school building at 24 Mosher Street, which the theater group is leasing from the city.

Marshall said the theater group is hoping to convert a building that has been abandoned for a year into a vibrant performance space for the community.

"It was a quiet, lonely and dark building," she said. "We're hoping to bring a lively, vibrant and dynamic building to the area."

As much as the group wants to liven up the space, Marshall said the group wants to preserve the building's history. 

"We want to highlight what the school was," Marshall said. "It's history." 

From 1992 to 2008, the People's Regional Opportunity Program used the old school for its Head Start program. Although PROP made a series of investments, the group decided not to renew its lease due to declining enrollment.  

The 1900s era school was originally known as the Pleasant Street School, but was renamed the Hattie A. Hutchins School in June of 1938. For a while, the school taught kindergartners through fourth graders, but was scaled back around 1970 to serve only kindergartners through second graders. Following a fire in 1974, the building was transferred to the city.

The Mad Horse Theatre's full-stage productions will continue to be offered across the Casco Bay Bridge at the Portland Stage Company. The Hutchins School will house business offices and provide some much-needed space for rehearsal, set-building and storage of props, sets and scripts.

"Our company has been without a central base for 10 years now," she said. "We have an enormous supply of costumes, props and sets that we can't access in an efficient way, so what usually ends up happening is this stuff ends up in closets, basements and apartments of our members." 

Meanwhile, Marshall said the group hopes to be able to offer free outdoor readings, in addition to other community-oriented events, like an open house planned for Sept. 11. Once the group is established, it will eventually begin offering community workshops and install an art gallery.

"We're looking at this as a community art center," she said.  

This winter, the group may offer bean suppers, a Maine tradition. However, Marshall said the group is looking to add a creative twist by partnering with a local producer to offer old time radio theater. 

As the theater group is beginning to open its doors to the community, the community appears to be reciprocating. 

Local radio personality Chuck Igo will host "A Night of Laughs" fundraiser for the group on Thursday, Aug. 13. Stand-up comedy will be provided by Lease-A-Laugh, a group of Portland-area comedians, starting at 7:30 p.m. at Events on Broadway (formerly the Thomas Room).

Tickets cost $10 and the proceeds will benefit the theater's renovation of the old Hutchins School.

Marshall said she isn't certain when the renovations will be complete, but she hopes it will be ready in time to allow for a six to eight week rehearsal before the 2009-2010 season opens in Oct. 8 with "The Dresser."

"It usually takes six weeks or two months of rehearsal," she said. "But we've also done it in two weeks." 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net