At Footlights Theatre, when you’re in the audience, you’re part of the action. The theater has 75 seats, but with just four rows facing the stage and two on the side with unobstructed views of the performance space, Footlights feels smaller and more intimate than it is. If you’re in the front row, as I was for an early-winter performance, you’re part of the action, within an arm’s length of the performers and close enough to see them sweat and occasionally – how can I say this politely? – experience their spittle.
The first row is on the stage, with each row behind it elevated. People seated in the back row are just 16 feet from the stage.
Which is to say, attending a play at Footlights Theatre offers a unique experience from most other theaters in Portland. Footlights is in its fifth season and, in that time, has sharpened its mission of the audience to not just seeing a show, but to experiencing it. That intimacy has become the theater’s niche. It’s like theater in 3D without the glasses.
Footlights is off Route 1 in Falmouth’s busy commercial district, part of a retail complex known as Falmouth Station. The theater entrance is at the back of the development, away from the road. Before it was a theater, it was a church, which made the conversion fairly simple.
“The space was already set up for public assembly,” said Michael Tobin, Footlights’ executive artistic director. “All I had to do was make a few theatrical changes. We are not like other theaters that have a raised stage with a proscenium arch, a curtain and all the bells and whistles you see at theaters like Portland Stage or the Ogunquit Playhouse.”
Footlights is more like an off-Broadway theater, a tiny black box with a small lobby with art by Maine artists, concessions and bathrooms. It also offers plenty of free, on-site parking.
The close proximity of the audience to the actors heightens the emotions of the play and enhances the ability of the performers to connect with the audience. That connection is further enhanced when, after every performance, the actors greet audience members on their way out of the theater and into the lobby. It’s a nice touch, and it helps make the audience feel welcome and special.
Wisely, Footlights plans elements of its shows to take advantage of the close-proximity seating to increase the “wow” factor. In “The Wizard of Oz,” the set revolved when the tornado blew, and the Wicked Witch melted within a few feet of those seated closest. During “A Christmas Carol,” the ghosts emerged from the dark recesses of the stage and truly startled people seated up front.
And for the upcoming production of “Appell: The Other Side of the Fence,” opening March 8, audience members will be made to feel that they are seated just beyond a concentration camp fence, as victims of the Holocaust tell their stories.
That tight physical circumstance comes with obligation and the pressure to deliver. Because the audience is so close, Footlights has to present flawless productions. The audience can see everything, down to the gruel in Scrooge’s bowl.
Footlights differs from other theaters in that it operates year-round, instead of seasonally. The theater has something going on nearly every weekend, and more than 100 actors work at Footlights each year, Tobin said.
Also worth noting: Footlights does not use a ticketing agency. It’s old-school. If you want tickets, you call the box office. If you call when the box office is staffed, a human being will answer the phone and process your ticket request without charging additional fees. Tickets cost $18 for adults, and that price hasn’t changed since Footlights opened five years ago.
For Tobin, Footlights represents a return to his early days in theater. He’s worked in theater for 35 years. Early in his career, he worked at Hackmatack Playhouse in Berwick, learning under the wing of Hackmatack founder S. Carleton Guptill.
“What I learned from Carl was, you didn’t need millions of dollars, high-tech and big-name actors to be successful,” Tobin said. “Carl was the master of making something out of nothing. He taught me so much, and I like to feel I have accomplished success over the past five seasons because of what he taught me. Carl showed me how to think outside the box and turn a dime into a dollar when producing a show. It’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice, but the results – the experience we give to our audiences – is worth it.”
WHERE: 190 Route 1, Falmouth
TICKETS & INFO: 747-5434, thefootlightsinfalmouth.com
SEATING STYLE: Four rows of seats, arranged on fixed risers, facing the stage; two rows to the side of the stage
REFRESHMENTS: Variety of non-alcoholic drinks
PARKING: Free parking in a lot
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes