The Maine Repertory Theater begins presenting improv and sketch comedy this weekend in a new 57-seat performance space at Pepperell Mill in Biddeford. But its story begins a decade ago, when co-founder Steve Burnette stepped away from his role at Biddeford City Theater and began Legacy Theater in Saco, a short-lived but successful enterprise involving Burnette and his friends Jon Cofield and David Hanright.
They produced some memorable shows – the late George H.W. and Barbara Bush attended their production of “Chicago” at Thornton Academy – and raised one ton of food for a Saco food pantry, then disbanded after one season, recognizing there was not enough room for a year-round theater company given the demands on the auditorium at Thornton, where Hanright ran an active drama department.
Shortly after closing the book on Legacy, Burnette and his wife moved to Ohio, back to Maine, to Florida and then back to Maine in summer 2017, when he resumed his long-held desire to establish a year-round theater. He looked at 50 spaces from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Freeport before settling on a space a few blocks from where it all began, in downtown Biddeford.
“I found this place in the mill in May, contacted Dave and asked him to be part of this, and we moved into it in August and have been converting it into the theater it is about to become,” he said.
That future begins Friday, when Maine Rep’s resident improv comedy group, the American Chamber of Comedy, opens with its Christmas show, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Improv!” Performances are 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Thereafter, the troupe will present family-friendly performances at 7 p.m. Fridays and what Burnette calls “late-night uncouth, possibly eyebrow-raising” shows at 9 p.m. Saturdays. As he did with Legacy, Burnette encourages people attending the shows to bring non-perishable food, which will be donated to food banks in Saco and Biddeford. In addition, 2 percent of each ticket sold will be donated to Habitat for Humanity and another 2 percent to Volunteers of America.
The theater is in the process of applying for a license to serve beer and wine, and will open with light snacks and soft drinks. That gives Burnette and the performers the chance to focus on the show and the logistics of the performance, and to get used to the space itself.
The American Chamber of Comedy is a nine-member troupe: Dennis Hunt, Doni Tamblyn, Nathan Greene, Meredith Brustlin, Tuck Tucker, Sam Kuykendall, Mary Boucher, Hanright and Burnette. Each weekend, five or six will perform, sometimes with a guest.
Burnette’s vision is creating an outlet for actors seeking the opportunity to “explore their creative energy. I want it to be a home for creative expression, not just a place of improv, but a place for creativity where actors can explore,” he said.
In Maine, busy actors commit to several shows a year, each with a three- or four-week run and a rehearsal process that often lasts longer. Burnette wants Maine Repetory Theater to be a place where actors can experiment, practice and grow between other commitments. They’ll rehearse on Monday nights to prepare for the weekend.
It’s a fluid membership. The American Chamber of Comedy will host auditions at 1 p.m. Jan. 6 to add “seasoned talent, folks older than 18, all races, all genders, left-handed, right-handed, ambidextrous, tall, short, skinny, not-so-skinny” to the improv comedy troupe.
Burnette is working in a 2,800-square-foot space on the first floor of the downtown mill. He, Hanright and a team of volunteers built a flexible stage, draped dark curtains to block out large windows along a big brick wall and hung a string of stage lights. There are tables and chairs, with flexible seating arrangements. It’s a simple, clean and comfortable.
If things go as Burnette hopes, the Maine Rep will be a place where the audience can come not knowing what to expect but confident it will be “stupid funny. When people say, ‘What’s the show about?’ the best we can do is say, ’90 minutes.’ We just never know what will happen,” he said. “If Monty Python collided with ‘The Kids in the Hall’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’ – the funny years, if people can remember them – we’re the residue that runs out of that collision.”
In addition to improv and sketch comedy, Maine Rep will host a Fun Pants Film Fethtival, a live quiz show and live radio shows. It’s also launching a comedy academy for students and adults, Laugh You. There will be comedy poetry slams – “the absolute worst evening of poetry, where the goal is to be booed off the stage” – and an Elvis Presley impersonation contest, So You Think You Can Elvis.
Timing is everything for Burnette, who lives in Saco. He started this journey a decade ago, when he left the City Theater to stake out on his own. It’s been a journey of fits and starts. A heart attack in February helped him focus again on his goals. He didn’t want to regret not pursuing his dream.
“I am very grateful for this opportunity,” he said, “and I think I am enjoying the journey more this time.”
WHERE: Maine Repertory Theater, Pepperell Mill, 40 Main St., Biddeford, Building 13, Suite 131
WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 7 p.m. Dec. 14, Dec. 21 and Dec. 28; 9 p.m. Dec. 15, Dec. 22 and Dec. 29
HOW MUCH: $12 cash or $15 online
INFO: mainerepertorytheater.com or (207) 205-6201
AUDITIONS: The American Chamber of Comedy will host auditions from 1 to 3 p.m. Jan. 6 at the theater