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'Gypsy' no more: Mad Horse Theatre finds a home in South Portland's Ferry Village

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'Gypsy' no more: Mad Horse Theatre finds a home in South Portland's Ferry Village

SOUTH PORTLAND — As the curtain rises on a new year, it is also coming up on the new stage for Mad Horse Theatre Company in Ferry Village.

After a small hiccup when the company discovered it was not legally allowed to stage public productions at its home in the former Hutchins School at 24 Mosher St., all permits and lease adjustments are in hand. The Jan. 17 Maine premiere of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" will go on as planned.

For Artistic Director Christine Marshall and board President David Jacobs, having the theater inside the building housing rehearsal and office spaces is a homecoming on at least two levels, since they and several other board members and actors live in the neighborhood.

Now in its 27th season, this is the first time in about 20 years Mad Horse has a stage of its own instead of a shared space at Portland Stage, Lucid Theater or Oak Street Theater.

"I've called us a gypsy theater because we have traveled so much," Jacobs said.

In 2009, the company and city agreed on a five-year lease for the two-story building, built in 1900. The company paid $400 monthly rent for the first three years, and rent will double for the last two years. The company also made $24,500 in renovations and repairs to the building.

Last summer, Mad Horse found out its performance space at the former Lucid Stage, 29 Baxter Blvd. in Portland, was shutting down.

Marshall said by the time they found out their stage would be going dark, there was little time to find a new space, so Jacobs and Marshall began working with city officials to allow live performances in the building they were leasing.

Marshall said former South Portland Economic Development Director Erik Carson showed strong support for the idea. After Carson's resignation in August, City Manager Jim Gailey took up the cause.

When the curtain rose on the production of David Mamet's "November" in October on Mosher Street, former Mayor and current City Councilor Patti Smith was on hand to welcome the company to its new stage. Jacobs described the space as a "black box" theater, so-called because of it is simple and unadorned, focusing on the intimacies of story, writing and performance, rather than technical aspects of productions.

A technicality lurked in the wings, however, when it was discovered the company needed a special exception in its lease and from the Planning Board for its building to become a legal place of public assembly.

The omission had no repercussions on the first show in a space seating about 50, and the lease amendment and Planning Board exception were approved this month. The amended permit allows the company up to 90 performances a year, and other groups can arrange to use the stage as part of that permitted total.

Keeping rehearsal and performance space consistent benefits the actors, stage manager and director, and having its own space benefits the company as a whole, Marshall said.

"You are at the mercy of the person from whom you are renting," she said about being tenants in another theater.

By staging shows in their own building, the company can also more easily extend runs of shows if attendance is strong, Marshall said.

Mad Horse is just around the corner from the Lyric Music Theater on Sawyer Street, and not far from the Portland Players on Cottage Road.

Being that close to other theaters is no worry for Jacobs and Marshall, who are confident Mad Horse has its own niche.

"We want to make theater accessible, get people here and maybe move them in some way," Jacobs said.

As a company, Mad Horse steers away from musicals and more traditional shows to create an edge, Marshall said.

"We are a totally different breed of cat in the best possible way," she said.

Scheduled for Mad Horse and the Lyric indicate no dates when both theaters are staging shows, and with on-site parking for more than 25 vehicles, Marshall and Jacobs are confident they will fit in well.

"We mean it, we want to be good neighbors," Jacobs said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.