AE Interviews Linda Nelson
July 2, 2005
Stonington is a beautiful town on the eastern tip of Deer Isle, an island about halfway up the coast of Maine (US). Lobster trapping is a major activity. The town is known for its superb granite quarry. And Linda Nelson is the director of Stonington's Opera House, which has just launched the Stonington SoundScape project, designed by media artists Nate Aldrich and Zach Poff, aimed at creating a database of local sounds that will allow users to create their own soundscape compositions. In fact, the Stonington Opera House offers many cutting edge activities and programs. We asked a few questions ...
AE What is the history of the Stonington Opera House?
LN The Opera House was first constructed as a dance hall in 1886. During the granite boom, at about that time, it was expanded to seat 1,000 as an 'opera house' (a vaudeville, multimedia theater) serving a population of 5,000 in little Stonington, including many Irish and Italian immigrant stonecutters. In 1910 the huge building burned. By that time, Stonington's population was declining and steel and concrete were replacing granite in large building construction. The opera house was rebuilt in its present configuration of 250 seats. Silent movies were introduced in 1918 and talkies shortly thereafter. Town meetings and high school graduations were held there through 1957; and high school basketball games were played there as well. When the seats were nailed down, it became a less multi-function space and its popularity began to decline. With the advent of television, the role of shared entertainment in many communities disintegrated and theaters throughout the country were abandoned - as was the Stonington Opera House. It was last used sporadically as a seasonal movie theater from 1980 - 1992. We created Opera House Arts as a non-profit organization in 1999 and purchased the building. Our primary goal was restoring the structure - which is, incidentally, on the National Register of Historic Places - to its original role as a central community institution where people can come together to share experience.
Stonington Opera House
AE How did you become involved?
LN I saw it in 1998. Talked to people in the community. Had a vision for its potential revival and its importance for Stonington's Main Street. So far, that vision has been accurate. The community has deep roots with the Opera House and has been very engaged in it and supportive of its revival.
AE What kinds of programs do you produce?
LN All of our programs are original to the Opera House. We are an Actors' Equity Small Professional Theater and we produce everything from professional theater to original opera to first-run movies and student programming. Last year we added the Imagination Project Public Digital Media Studio to our programs. We think that digital media skills and productions are today's arts-and-communication vocabulary and that we must be literate in these languages. Under the auspices of the Imagination Project we commissioned 'Tire Tracks: Marks of Hope or Fear of Extinction?', a video documentary about the local custom of "burning rubber." We also commissioned Stonington SoundScape, constructed by sound designer Nate Aldrich, which will be a large database of local sounds with an interactive interface for the public. In their underlying goal, these new media projects mirror our live theater work to support and promote our community's unique cultural legacy. We're continually creating new work from that legacy, work that engages youth and creates a vibrant community. Opera House Arts' mission is to foster and promote excellence in all the ways we perform our lives: Incite Art, Create Community!
AE How can people find out about your productions?
LN We do a great newsletter called 'Spill Light', available by print if people send us their snail mail addressses and also by download at our website. Our full schedule, as well as a form to get more involved with us, are both available there.
AE Do you have an educational program?
LN We think lifelong learning is critical and we run many educational programs in close conjunction with the schools and the Healthy Island Project. The Wicked Good Student Film Series, a media literacy, arts management, and film-making program, is now in its 6th year. All of our programs operate from the perspective of youth advocacy, i.e. giving youth the power to run their own shows and speak in their own voices. We offer support, guidance, resources, and belief in their incredible talents and potential. We also offer other, more traditional arts workshops as part of our Island Family Theater Arts multigenerational program, which we develop with Seamark Community Arts.
AE What are your plans for the future?
LN Ah ... well, if we can continue to develop and deepen all of the above we will be very pleased. The Imagination Project has incredible potential, and we are working with the Town of Stonington to establish a local cable access channel for distribution of some of these programs. That will be a major project. We are more than half way through a $750,000 capital campaign, and our current project is construction of a public walkway and seating area that should be open by mid-July and that will be both a safety feature for the town (in accessing a particularly dangerous hill) and also a shared public space of which there are few on the Island. And as of April 1 the building was winterized (for the first time since the 1940s) so that now it's open year round! So we have our hands full, extending and building on all of this great success ... and we are very grateful to the many, many volunteers, donors, and community members who make it possible.