A hundredth birthday is a big one, and Maine’s children’s theater is the longest-running in the nation. The folks at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine have set their sights on making the occasion shine. In addition to offering puppet-making activities, dress-up booths, and an invitation to wear gold throughout the festivities, CMTM has planned a weekend festival of pop-up plays inspired by the Museum’s three floors of exhibits. The party starts this Thursday, May 18, with a little adult playtime, and continues all weekend for the kids.
A new short play coming to us this week includes oceanic marvels: a bereft selkie and a new friend she meets on the shore, a diabolical sea witch, and a wizard with a magical recipe involving rare kelp. During a recent rehearsal, at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, I watched the selkie’s friend don green prism goggles and frenetically fend off an invisible fish.
The show is “The Tale of the Lost Seal Skin,” by sixteen-year-old Tatiana Esbjorn-Hargens, and it’s one of 14 short plays being performed this weekend — including four plays by young playwrights Esbjorn-Hargens, Eleanor Keniston, Pearl Rockers, Sloan Willows and Maeve Narbus — as the centerpiece of the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine’s Centennial Weekend.
As children are at the center of CMTM’s world, the four youth-written plays, submitted through an open call, are the cornerstone of the celebration. “The Children’s Theatre has been hosting youth playwriting workshops, writing contests and festivals for a long time,” said the theater’s Artistic Director Reba Askari. “It’s part of our legacy.”
And as their muse, the playwrights explored the wondrous rooms of the Museum.
The marine fantasy by Esbjorn-Hargens, a sophomore at Waynflete, took its cues from the Museum’s water ecosystems exhibit “From the Mountains to the Sea.”
“The moment I saw the aquarium,” Esbjorn-Hargens recalled, “I immediately thought of the stories I had read as a child about magical creatures of the sea, one being the selkie.”
The Museum’s “Illumination” room, with its giant Lite-Brite and camera obscura, was the spark for South Portland fourth graders Sloan Willows’ and Maeve Narbus’ “The Color Constellation,” about two young friends who set out to “restore a rainbow.”
In the comedy “Speed Lobster Trap,” homeschooled sixth-grade playwright Eleanor Keniston plays with Maine tropes as the seagulls screech “mine mine mine” and a lobster boat is pulled over for speeding.
“My dad and I were brainstorming and we had the idea to use the boat exhibit,” Keniston explained, “because there are a lot of people in Maine who would understand a story about boats.”
And the fourth youth-written play, “The Bush Creature,” is by six-year-old Cape Elizabeth kindergartener Pearl Rockers. In it, two safari explorers (one more reluctant than the other) try to track down an escaped rhino.
Adult playwrights whose work was chosen from the call wrote stories for all ages, and of myriad adventures and creatures.
Playwright (and hip hop artist) Nathan Lapointe welcomes big feelings with his “Emotion Song.” Thespian and puppeteer Elliot Nye takes on a “human vs. shark” storyline in their “Dr. John Dactylian Telmer Under the Sea”; saltwater isn’t going to quench anyone’s thirst in Linda Shary’s “Adrift”; and late-night hikes might look different after seeing Megan E. Tripaldi’s “The Legend of the Night Moose.”
In “An Unlikely Story,” Kelsey Tribble brings an ancient creature across millions of years to 2023, and a caterpillar dreams of flight in Charlotte Wimple’s “Insect Play I: Metamorphosis.” Jessie Raspbury tells of a very particular manufacturing career in “Dr. Winkle and the Nightmare Factory of Doom,” while fairies are uncredited engineers of illumination in Ciara Neidlinger’s “Sources of Light.” Finally, Zack Handlen considers surprise birthdays for elephants in “Finding Sheila,” and Nolan Ellsworth and Annika Johnston tell a true-ish story of amusement park highjinks in “Roller Coaster Caper.”
“With a simple prompt, people really went wild creating dramatic stories based on play spaces,” says Askari. “A person’s imagination is a wonderful thing!”
These plays will be performed by both adult and youth actors, and will run several times at locations throughout the museum over the weekend, so young guests can move freely between theater, hands-on crafts, and some surprises.
And because inner children also need playtime, the celebration will launch with two adults-only events on Thursday, May 18. A $200 ticket gets you into an early evening, VIP cocktail hour, followed by a preview of “Sources of Light” and music by chanteuse Viva, the eclectic international group Bondeko and Guster’s Adam Gardner.
Later that same night, CMTM presents the latest installment in their 21-plus series After Dark. The young-at-heart in attendance will have the run of three floors of Museum exhibits and their own dress-up station and photo booth.
Children’s theater — especially plays made by and for kids — is one of the most powerful experiences a young person can have in art and community, and we’re so very lucky to have here in Maine an institution with the remarkable longevity and spirit of CMTM.
“I’m very excited to share the future of play writing and play making,” says Askari. “Celebrating 100 years could have gone a lot of different ways, but I’m excited to premiere stories people are writing and thinking about right now.”
And what do the youth playwrights hope audiences will take away from their plays, and from the whole festival? “I hope people feel silly when they leave the show,” says Keniston. “I want them to feel light — maybe something different than they usually feel.”
And from six-year-old Rockers: “I want the audience to feel happy and excited.”
Worthy emotions to celebrate a hundred years of wonder.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.