Richard Sewell, Former Founding/Artistic Director

Robert Joyce and his University of Wisconsin design team staged my first published play with beauty and integrity. We all became friends and pipe-dreamed a theatre—actors on a stark set empowering words and adeptly playing leads one night, brief roles the next.

As a teenager I’d seen Cumston Hall when the American Savoyards did Gilbert & Sullivan there before they moved on to New York. Some saw the Hall as out-of-the-way and out of fashion. When I lured Bob Joyce to it in 1970 we saw an ideal home for the theatre we sought: intimate, playful, welcoming yet with grandeur; a place that asks you to be better, to try harder. It was shabby, but proud, too. Bob assembled most of that first hard-toiling troupe, interns from his University, professionals from around the nation. Cumston had stood empty, we were co-tenants with bats and swallows, waging a huge housekeeping battle against 70 years’ of dust and droppings.

Many Monmouth-ites welcomed us, Earl Flanders especially, trustee of the Hall, tireless preservationist, founder of the Monmouth Museum, and a beloved undertaker so many relied on in dark hours. Earl shared with me his memories of that extraordinary craftsman, Harry Cochrain. I absorbed from Earl (and others) a reverence for Cumston Hall, Cochrain’s masterwork. His theatre house is a triumph of proportion over scale, opera-house stateliness scaled to the size of a large drawing room. Here one can obey a favorite principle: “Don’t act till you can see the whites of their eyes.” Now, with its ornate decor lovingly restored, that underlying simplicity of design, the elegant bone-structure, is a bit harder to see than it was in starker days, but it is there—as is the geniality of its creator.

For our first season, Bob directed R&J and 12th Night and I The Tempest and The Lady’s Not for Burning; it blurs now. Glowing reviews and sponsors’ generosity kept us alive; we ended with no debt—except for huge debts of gratitude. Ed Schlick’s Arco, an Augusta company, gave us printing; Chick Apples housed us; Bob’s Portland electrician brothers wired us for modern theatre lighting. As promised to some of the more skeptical town fathers, on our last September day we wholly dismantled the multi-leveled thrust stage Charles Bousliman had designed for four huge plays to haunt. We returned the Hall to its good ghosts in better shape than we found it.  The town was willing to welcome us back for another season.

That first season set our pattern: four major productions in “rolling rep”—where a company defies type-casting in widely varied roles and by August juggles four plays on alternate nights. Since many patrons are short-time tourists a rolling (now called rotating) repertory made sense. In a deeper sense it fully challenges the actors’ skills.

The next season added a children’s show, Toad of Toad Hall. This play provided the nickname for the old Hall family home across the street, acquired for the Theater in 1974 thanks to the hard-earned generosity of Marjory Sewell. After season two, Bob Joyce’s growing family and his University post drew him away—a great loss. Many of the actors he’d brought stayed on including John Fields, Bill Meisle, Peter Michael Webster, and Lee McLeland were among the very memorable.

In the third through sixth seasons I was more often actor than director. Fine artistic directors came and went, Earl McCarrol, Tom Marcus. From them I learned a lot; but always lack of funds irked them,defeated their visions and their seasons tended to end in deep debts. I came back to the directorship more by default, having learned as much from their artistic excellences as from their economic difficulties. Perhaps they were not as deeply bitten as I by the hunger to do our kind of theatre in Cumston Hall.

For many years in the late seventies, eighties, and into the early nineties, I shared in that project.  At one point the State Legislature designated us “The Shakespearean Theater of Maine.”  We’ve done works by almost all the greats writing in English up to the last century, as well as superb translations of Moliere, Corneille, Goldoni, Ibsen, and Chekhov.

My best single stroke of private luck in those years was that actress Kim Gordon agreed to marry me—from then on we were a team.

Each year I had at least one co-director. Ted Davis was that for several years. Ted joined us, bringing his own touring company, in the year when inherited debt forced us non-union. (That cost me at least one dear friend.)  We did the huge histories, Henry V and Richard III.  By the next year we were all union again.

What shared passion kept us at the project so long? I always knew that many, many theatres could stage contemporary plays as well as I could (some immeasurably better), but I stubbornly believed in assembling a group with its own special affinity for plays whose words not only show what language does, but what it can do, not only how we think and feel, but how we might be capable of thinking and feeling. This is a belief in what you could call humanity writ large, a thing our busy era often loses sight of. Cumston Hall is a fine place to aim for that.

High points?  Too many for this sketch. Here’s one. When the Monmouth Grange disbanded, those gallant elders chose to accept our small urgent bid on the grange building (it had been crucial to us since Earl Flanders first secured us the use of it for dining hall and rehearsals). The granger members passed up a considerably bigger bid in order to let us have their home—a  vivid demonstration that the town valued us and felt us a part of their community!

This is not a story that has an end…may the journey continue and be twice as long as it now is!