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.”
PORTLAND STAGE COMPANY
LOCATION: 25A Forest Avenue, Portland
TICKETS & INFO: Box Office: 207.774.0465, 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.