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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: September 14, 2016

Rate the stage: How Maine’s venues measure up

MaineToday is launching a series of venue reviews, to let people know what to expect the next time they go out to see a show at a club, theater or arena.

Written by: Ray Routhier
Nigel Hall Band plays at Portland House of Music. Joel Page/Staff Photographer PORTLAND HOUSE OF MUSIC LOCATION: 25 Temple St., Portland TICKETS & INFO: portlandhouseofmusic.com; 805-0134 CAPACITY: 292 SEATING STYLE: Flexible depending on show. One show featured seating for about 100 people and some standing room, while other tickets to other shows guarantee only standing room. But even for those shows there is a limited amount of seating, though not reserved. REFRESHMENTS: Beer and wine at the bar PARKING: On street or in garage next door, but garage closes at midnight WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes OTHER: Most shows are restricted to ages 21 and over, but younger people can attend with an accompanying adult. Some shows are 18-plus. Located in a former florist shop on Temple Street in the Old Port, the Portland House of Music is a flexible music space that hosts all kinds of artists. Some of the rock and hip-hop shows are basically big parties with an open floor in front of the stage for dancing and thrashing about. For some of those shows, people pay one ticket price and can stand or dance where ever they’d like. There are always a few seats, including some church pews, for people who need to rest. The total capacity of the place is 292. But at a Shemekia Copeland show in September, most of the floor was taken up by about 100 plastic folding chairs, so most of the audience was seated. A few people stood, or sat on the pews in the back of the club. It was easy for people to move the chairs a couple inches in any direction to provide more elbow or leg room. Nobody had to be cramped. The last row of chairs was only about 60 or 70 feet from the stage, with a clear view of the stage and everyone on it. And the stage is high enough that even tall folks sitting in the front row didn’t block the view. At the end of Copeland’s show, most people were on their feet, dancing in place. But even then, people who wanted to remain seated had a pretty good view. The main viewing area is sunken below street level, with a 10-foot-wide raised concourse in the very back of the club and to one side of the stage. Some chairs were set up on the side concourse, so people there were on the save level as Copeland. The stage and the concourse are connected, so a couple times during the show, Copeland was able to easily walk right into the audience. Because of the sunken floor, the ceiling is fairly high. The place did not seem stuffy or hot at all, and the sound circulated clearly. Copeland’s powerful voice and her four-piece band were loud without sounding distorted. The bass made the floor vibrate just enough to get everyone pumped up and not enough to give anyone a headache. The ticket price for a seat bought online was $35, plus $7 in processing fees. For a $45 ticket, people were allowed to sit in one of the first three rows. A standing room ticket was $25. To one side of the main floor is a bar area with a dozen or more beer selections, plus wine. The bar is visible from most of the club, so it’s easy to go up when you see there’s no one in line. Beer specials started at $5. The lighting for the show was soft and cool, with shades of blue and purple filtering across the stage. There was enough soft lighting elsewhere so that people could walk to the bar and bathrooms (down a hallway) without tripping over anything or anyone. The place has a giant crystal chandelier over the middle of the main viewing and dancing area, but it was not lit. The venue’s website had advertised the show time as “doors at 7 p.m., music starts at 8 p.m.” And, by 8:01 p.m., Copeland and her band were roaring into their first song. Reviewed by Staff Writer Ray Routhier.

Nigel Hall Band plays at Portland House of Music. Joel Page/Staff Photographer

Picking a place to see a show is not that different from buying real estate: Location is crucial.

Seeing your favorite rock band in a club where a wall or giant post blocks your view will probably end up being a less-than-wonderful experience. Having to stand for two hours during a concert if you’ve been on your feet all day at work, might diminish the experience as well.

A venue’s acoustics, sight lines, seating arrangements and lighting are all things that can contribute to a great experience. So it makes sense that fans of live entertainment would want to know what a venue is like before handing over $30, $40 or more for a ticket.

The main stage seating at Portland Stage Company. Photo courtesy of Portland Stage Company PORTLAND STAGE COMPANY LOCATION: 25A Forest Avenue, Portland TICKETS & INFO: Box Office: 207.774.0465, www.portlandstage.org CAPACITY: 286 for main stage; 60 to 75 for studio theater SEATING STYLE: For main stage, proscenium theater with unobstructed views and a large rise; the farthest seats are just 45 feet away from the stage. Studio theater is a flexible, black box space with tiered seating on three sides. REFRESHMENTS: Alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, treats PARKING: On-street parking within walking distance and a 50 percent discount at the garage between Spring and Free Streets, available most nights with a ticket stamped at the concessions stand. There are two nearby pay-to-park lots, one right next door, run by Unified Parking Partners that some patrons don’t find ideal, according to the theater. WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes OTHER: For the main stage only, the theater also offers sign language interpretation for some productions and has a limited number of hearing-assistance devices and large print playbills for all productions, free of charge. Arrive early to obtain those. The entrance to Portland Stage Company’s theater, a former Odd Fellows trade union hall at the top of Forest Avenue, is fairly unassuming; there are grander 19th-century buildings elsewhere in town. At street level, the soft-serve ice cream cone-like concrete details framing the front door are a clue to its idiosyncrasies. There’s no grand entry, though. Rather, inside, it’s a quick duck left to the box office, then a schlep up the steps, which are bolstered by industrial, bolt-studded supports. Most theater-goers here know Anita Stewart as Portland Stage’s artistic director. But few are aware that she’s also one of the most respected set designers in the country and has fashioned sets for theaters in New York City and elsewhere. Her designs, along with the capabilities of the technical team, are often a surprise to visiting directors and actors used to the diminutive budgets of other League of Resident Theatres’ “D” tier theaters, which are generally the smallest and poorest. “A lot does get done here, not just backstage, but throughout the theater,” said technical director Ted Gallant. “You’ve got a few people doing many jobs. So our master electrician is also our production manager. And we keep most of the design in house.” Unlike many theaters across the country, which rent pre-fab sets that get traded around for various shows, Portland Stage builds its sets from scratch. That allows a director the luxuries of imagination and vision. Gallant and his team re-purpose many things, like staircases, over and over and have relationships with local lumber companies and retailers for bespoke construction. “We live in Maine, we’ve got a lot of trees here and a lot of lumber mills,” Gallant said. “And the community is very generous in loaning us things. Last year, Anita wanted a high-end kitchen, so we built all the countertops and cabinetry, and Lowe’s lent the appliances.” The theater’s main stage isn’t huge, but among the 286 seats in the house, there isn’t a bad one. The rake of the rise, the generous sight lines free of obstruction and the fine acoustics enable the magic experienced by the audience. Tucked elsewhere in the building is a black box venue, where smaller productions and new plays are staged and workshopped. Longfellow Shorts, a series of literary readings performed by the theater’s professional in-house Affiliate Artists actors, runs several times a year on the main stage on Mondays, when the house is dark. Those events include a chat with the featured author and a chance to get the book, signed, from local bookseller Longfellow Books. Portland Stage now also runs a children’s theater in a storefront space between Congress and Cumberland avenues. “When people see a show, they don’t realize it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Stewart said. “This is, far and away, one of the best theaters in the country. Because of the space and the scale, everybody feels included.” Reviewed by Daphne Howland, a freelance writer based in Portland.

The main stage seating at Portland Stage Company. Photo courtesy of Portland Stage Company

That’s why MaineToday is launching a series of venue reviews, focusing on Maine clubs, arenas, theaters and other event spaces. They will range from small clubs to large outdoor venues that host music, theater, film or other events.

Hopefully, the reviews will let people find the kind of live entertainment experience they’re looking for because every fan is looking for something a little different.

Dick Matthews of South Portland said organization is the most important quality to him. He wants ticket lines and seating areas to be clearly marked. He wants people to tell him where he can sit, and he wants venue staff to keep people out of his seats. He doesn’t want confusion. He wants a smooth experience.

But he also wants a place with “atmosphere,” like the Maine State Pier in Portland, where he recently saw the Goo Goo Dolls.

“Being on the water there at sunset is just great,” said Matthews, 50.

Patrons arrive at Portland House of Music last week.

Patrons arrive at Portland House of Music last week.

Louise Harwood of Augusta said she goes to about 50 shows a year and prefers to have a seat and a cocktail when listening to music. She also said good acoustics are high on her venue wish list.

Harwood, 53, used to own a music venue: Hoxter’s in Hallowell. That’s partly why she’s “pretty particular about being able to enjoy the experience when I go out,” she said.

Enjoying the experience, after all, is the whole idea behind going out to see a show. Here’s our take on several local venues:

VENUE REVIEWS: Portland House of Music, Portland Stage, Merrill Auditorium, Blue and more.

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