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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: March 4, 2015

Acorn Productions new theater at historic Mechanics Hall opens for First Friday Art Walk

Written by: Bob Keyes

Mike Levine is salivating over the balcony.

With balusters painted white with a dark-stained rail, the curved balcony overlooks a spacious ballroom, where Levine and Acorn Productions are about to introduce another downtown theater option. Levine is thinking about all the ways to incorporate the balcony into his shows, but for now he’s mostly concerned about getting the third-floor ballroom at the Mechanics Hall functioning as a theater space.

Acorn is the anchor tenant of the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, which was founded in 1815 to support the “mechanic arts,” or any trade that involved working with tools. Acorn will use the ballroom as a small theater. With 60 seats but room for many more, the Mechanics Hall theater opens for First Friday Art Walk with an open house and variety show, hosted by Portland actor Paul Haley.

Among the groups that will perform is Acorn’s Naked Shakespeare ensemble, Apparatus Dance Theater and the Running With Scissors Improv Comedy Group.

Beginning in April, Acorn and Naked Shakespeare will use the ballroom for regular First Friday performances.

The theater represents a return to downtown for Acorn, hope for the mechanic association and a new use for one of Portland’s historic buildings.

Acorn has been among Portland’s longest-tenured arts groups, but left the city for the cheaper rents of Westbrook. After a few years out of Portland, Acorn returns.

The Maine Charitable Mechanic Association is a 200-year-old civic/commercial organization, steeped in America’s labor and industry traditions. It was founded to support anyone who used tools – shipwrights, bakers, tailors – and has largely functioned under the mysterious shroud of a professional trade organization. It is looking for ways to boost its profile while earning money to reinvest in the building.

The exterior of the Mechanics Hall building on Congress Street. Right, a granite carving above one of the two-story windows. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

The exterior of the Mechanics Hall building on Congress Street. Right, a granite carving above one of the two-story windows. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

And then there’s the building. Completed in 1859 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it sits on Congress Street across from Maine College of Art, unassuming but stately in its brick and granite exterior.

The second floor houses the eighth-oldest member library in the country, which was established to broaden the knowledge of its members. The third floor is the 3,000-square foot ballroom, designed by noted Portland architect John Calvin Stevens around the turn of the century.

The ballroom has been used for the mechanics lecture series, dance and social events, but it’s largely been out of the public view for the past half-century, said board member Tom Blackburn.

“We need the rental,” Blackburn said, explaining the motive for taking on a tenant. “We have a building with a lot of deferred maintenance.”

Acorn and the mechanics have raised about $14,000 to upgrade electrical and fire-safety systems. That work was necessary before the city permitted large public gatherings in the ballroom.

Levine likes the space because it’s flexible. There is no stage or risers, which will allow Acorn to configure the space to suit the production needs of a play. Phase II of the fundraising campaign, at about $20,000, will pay for adaptable lighting structures, better chairs, acoustic panels and window baffles,

A third phase, still a long ways out, would reconfigure the ballroom to expand the space.

In addition to its monthly shows and the Maine Playwrights Festival, Acorn will use the space for workshops, rehearsals and classes. Levine hopes other theater, dance and film groups will consider renting it, as well.

He can’t imagine them not renting the space once they realize they get a balcony in the deal.

“This building is full of character, nobody knows it’s here,” he said. “They walk right by it. We want to raise people’s awareness of this building, which is a gem in downtown.”

BALLROOM SHOWCASE

WHEN: 6 to 8 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Third-floor ballroom at Mechanics Hall, 519 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: Free
OTHER: Reception from 6 to 7 p.m., variety show at 7 p.m. Apparatus Dance Theater, Dark Follies Vaudeville, Hidden Ladder Collective, Improvised Puppet Project, Michael Trautman, Naked Shakespeare, Running With Scissors Improv Comdey Group, STAGES Academy
INFO: acornproductionsportland.wordpress.com

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