Director Bill Raiten, then in his 30s, had just arrived in Blue Hill in 1971, seeking the off-the-grid ‘good life’ in Maine. His childhood friends, pianist Sheldon Bisberg and scenic designer Kenneth Weinberg, with whom he grew up in a largely Russian Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, came with him.
They’d come to Maine to farm and to practice Zen Buddhism at the Moonspring Hermitage in Surry (now known as the Morgan Bay Zendo). But Raiten and his friends were, first and foremost, theater guys. They’d been doing it all their lives, directing and designing shows in New York and in the Borscht Belt theaters in the Catskills, doing standup comedy, singing, acting, dancing, you name it.
If you’ve ever met Raiten, you know that everything he does — on stage or off — is a bit of a performance.
“I can’t help myself,” said Raiten. “It’s just who I am.”
It wasn’t long before farming — something Raiten and his wife, costume designer Elena Bourakovsky, still do on their small but mighty one-acre farm in Blue Hill — simply wasn’t enough to utilize Raiten’s seemingly boundless well of creative energy. When the board of directors of the Ellsworth Players, a now defunct local theater group, was looking to produce a musical in the summer of 1971, he jumped at the chance to direct.
The show he chose was “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I told them ‘We’re gonna do ‘Fiddler.’ And there wasn’t one Jew sitting there. And they said ‘Fiddler on the Roof?’ It’s a great show, but how are we gonna do it?’” recalled Raiten. “I said ‘No problem! I can do it!’ And I talked them into 500 dollars to pay me … and 500 for Sheldon to be musical director.”
The production, which starred Maine native and later Hollywood actor Herb Mitchell as Tevye, was a big hit. A few months later, the New Surry Theatre and Performing Arts School, Raiten’s theater company now based out of the Blue Hill Town Hall, was born.
Forty-six years later, Raiten, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants not unlike the ones portrayed in “Fiddler,” will direct the show one more time, with Bisberg as music director, Weinberg as scenic designer, Bourakovsky as costume designer, and Maureen Robinson of the Robinson Ballet choreographing. It’s his eighth production of it. The show opens Friday, April 21 at the Blue Hill Town Hall, and runs for three weekends, with three encore weekends of shows set for July and August.
The final curtain call for this production has another special significance too: It will be Raiten’s last as well. After more than 50 years of directing theater, Raiten is retiring. At age 79, he’s finding the huge amounts of energy required to direct a community theater production with an enormous cast and crew harder and harder to come up with.
“It’s a lot of work. It’s exhausting. By the end of the day, I’m just exhausted. I’m old,” Raiten said during an interview last week. “It really takes a lot out of you, doing a show like this. We’ve got 54 people in the cast. We’re still trying to figure out where to put them all.”
Raiten says that even after all these years, he still finds new insights and relevance in the show as he directs it. For those unfamiliar, it tells the story of Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman (played in the upcoming NST production by Douglas Coffin), his five daughters, and the residents of the tiny Russian village of Anatevka.
“There’s always new things I learn. I see it through the eyes of the actors, because they always have new experiences with it,” said Raiten. “I think today, with the refugee crisis, I think a show like ‘Fiddler’ is more relevant than ever. Anatevka could be them … I try to talk about things like that in rehearsals.”
Raiten’s history with “Fiddler” is, in some ways, a history of his long theater career. Though this upcoming show is the sixth time the New Surry Theatre has produced “Fiddler,” Raiten has directed it in several other places, including as part of Theatre ArtWORKS, Raiten’s theater company in the 1990s geared towards at-risk youth in eastern Maine. That production had a cast of 92 people.
“I hate the idea of telling someone that they can’t do it, that they can’t be involved,” said Raiten. “We’ll find a place for them. We want them to have that experience, of theater. It can change a person’s life.”
Raiten’s most notable production of “Fiddler” has to be the one he directed in 1991, staged in Leningrad, Russia, and Tbilisi, Georgia, not long after the fall of communism. It was the culmination of several years of Raiten directing shows in Russia, including plays like “Luv” by Murray Schisgal, a play that was performed in repertory at the Komedy Theatre in Leningrad until 2000. Coincidentally, the Komedy Theatre is where Raiten met his wife, Bourakovsky, who was then that theater’s costume designer.
Raiten wrote to director Jerome Robbins, who held the rights to full-scale productions of “Fiddler,” asking for his permission to stage the show in Russia. Robbins declined, so Raiten wrote a letter to Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist of “Fiddler” and a longtime professional friend, what to do. Fortunately, Harnick could give permission to Raiten using scenes and songs from the show, rather than a full-scale production, and so they did — with Harnick accompanying Raiten to Russia, even singing the song “Do You Love Me?” with his wife, Margie, during the show.
“Sheldon wrote me a letter for this show,” said Raiten, who has corresponded with Harnick over the years, including writing him a letter to tell him about his last ‘Fiddler.’ “It’s been a joy to have that sort of a connection with him over the years.”
Though Raiten’s directing career has nearly come to a close, he still intends to teach acting and directing classes through the New Surry Theatre’s Performing Arts School — and the New Surry Theatre continues on, under new artistic director Johannah Blackman.
“I consider myself a teacher before a director,” said Raiten. “I love to teach. I like to reach people… it’s a calling.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” from the New Surry Theatre will run April 21-22, April 28-29, May 5-6 and May 12-13 at 7 p.m., and April 23 and 30 at 7 p.m. at the Theater at the Blue Hill Town Hall. Tickets are $22 for adults, $18 seniors, $15 students. Three encore weekends are set for July 28-29, Aug. 4-5 and 11-12, also at the Blue Hill Town Hall. For more information, visit newsurrytheatre.org.
Ed. note: Douglas Coffin, who plays the lead role of Tevye, is married to BDN Next writer Meg Haskell.