History of New Surry Theatre

The New Surry Theatre (NST) was founded in 1972 by actor/director Bill Raiten. it began as a Theatre/Acting school, with students coming from Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, and California. The acting lessons that first summer culminated with ten sold-out performances of Fiddler On the Roof in a rustic barn in Surry, Maine.

The 70’s and 80’s brought year-round acting classes, summer theatre camps, and summer repertory seasons in Blue Hill, Deer Isle, Ellsworth, and many other Maine towns as well as in St. Andrews, Canada. Among their productions were Man of La Mancha, Luv, Glass Menagerie, Peace Child, All My Sons, The Dumb Waiter, Shirley Valentine, Steel magnolias, Nunsense, Laughing Wild, The Last Flapper, and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolfe.

All this changed when Raiten was invited to live in Leningrad as a guest director for the 1989 winter theatrical season. This invitation came from a visiting Russian director who saw the NST’s 1988 repertory season in Maine. The NST agreed to send Raiten to direct professional Soviet actors in plays that were not available to the Russian people before Glasnost. These productions were to be presented in the Russian language. He directed Murray Schisgal’s LUV in the Komedy Theatre of Leningrad, where it was performed in repertory from 1989 through 2000, and two avant-garde plays by Edward Albee with the St. Petersburg Salon Theatre, who are now performing their own plays in New York and Paris. As an innovative extension of Glasnost, Raiten asked the audiences to stay after the performances for “open discussions” on any topic.

He was then invited to bring twenty-five actors of the NST to the USSR for a two-week “Performances-For-Peace” tour where they performed songs and scenes from American plays and musicals. The NST then brought their Russian hosts and fellow actors and musicians to visit America during the summer of 1990. The NST booked performances for their Russian guests in Maine, New York, Canada and California, including appearances in the Santa Monica Jazz Festival and on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

The NST then had Raiten direct a production of songs from Fiddler On The Roof, performed in Leningradand and Tblisi, Georgia with a Los Angeles theatre company started by a Raiten protege who began his acting career in the NST’s first classes in 1972. The NST invited Raiten’s friend, Fiddler On The Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick and his wife, actress Margie Harnick, to accompany the troupe and perform Do You Love Me?

In 1992, the NST was asked to create a program for at-risk youth, using NST techniques. Raiten, the NST Costume and Make-up Designer, and a lead Actress/Secretary took the challenge and created Theatre Arts WORKS (TAW), a program that used theatre and computers to help troubled youth see how wonderful they truly were. TAW was 85% successful in getting at-risk youth back to school or into a lasting job. During those years, TAW produced the full-length musicals Annie, Music Man, Oliver!, Fiddler On The Roof, Little Shop Of Horrors, and Man Of La Mancha.

In July of 2000, TAW funding ended and Raiten returned to work as Artistic Director of the New Surry Theatre. The NST’s first production in the year 2000 was OKLAHOMA! It was performed in Belfast, Maine and then travelled to Bangor where it performed as a benefit for the Shaw House, a homeless shelter for youth. In 2001 the NST formed a collaboration with the GRAND offering weekly adult Acting classes, a summer Performing Arts school, and in 2001/2002, productions of Lost In Yonkers and Noises Off.

2001 was the last year that NST worked with Maine Youth Voices, and The Maine Office Of Substance Abuse. They had formed the New Surry Theatre Task Force and worked with local youth to educate the community about the dangers of underage drinking. The task force wrote and filmed a short documentary with Maine PBS that was aired in May 2001 and was nominated for a regional New England Emmy.

The New Surry Theatre is a tax exempt 501(c)(3) Maine non-profit corporation based in Blue Hill, Maine.

How We Got Our Name... (in Bill Raiten’s words)

“In 1972 when Sheldon Bisberg and I were contemplating the possibilities of starting our own repertory theater in Surry, I met Katharine Conley who taught at Ellsworth High School. She told me that she had written a term paper in 1938 at the University of Maine titled: The Origin And Development of the Theater In Surry, Maine. I was intrigued and asked to read it. There it was, a short history of a Repertory Theater and Acting school started in 1929 by Leighton Rollins and financially backed by Mrs. Ethelbert Nevin of Blue Hill.  It had the likes of Shepperd Strudwick and Henry Fonda on stage and Laura Elliot (Katharine Cornell’s teacher) heading the school with Leo Bulgakov, a former director and actor of the Moscow Art Theater as their Director. The theater went ‘dark’ during the Second World War until 1945 when Sarah Greene, a summer resident of Blue Hill allowed a new producer, Charles Carey, to start the Surry Playhouse, rent free. Our own Mary Grace Canfield told me that she came that year as a twenty year old apprentice and performed and performed until the Playhouse closed for good in 1952. Mary Grace went on to play in many Broadway and Off-Broadway plays as well as on ‘live’ TV during the 1950’s in New York. Living in Sedgwick, Maine she was the source of many beguiling theatrical stories for me.  Most of all I found the story of the Surry Theater, and the Surry Playhouse fascinating and so The New Surry Theatre (NST) was born in the summer of 1972.”