Bill Raiten, who for more than 50 years inspired thousands of people in eastern Maine to act, sing, dance and be their best selves through huge community theater productions, died on Thursday at his home in Blue Hill at age 84.
His death was confirmed by New Surry Theatre artistic director Lori Sitzabee, who said his memory would pervade everything as the company celebrates its 50th season and is set to open a new production, “Head Over Heels,” next weekend.
“He built community through truthful acting and spreading the joy and love of theater throughout Maine, and especially the Blue Hill Peninsula,” Sitzabee said. “His legacy will live on as the theater continues to help bring the community together.”
Raiten founded New Surry Theatre and Performing Arts School in 1971. The Blue Hill-based company over the past five decades has produced countless plays and musicals and trained generations of performers in eastern Maine to feel at home on the stage, whether they went on to pursue theater as a hobby or career or not.
Born in 1938 to Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, Raiten spent his younger years around the New York theater and comedy scene, directing and producing shows, performing on stage and even doing standup comedy in the Borscht Belt in upstate New York.
By the early 1970s, however, Raiten and a group of his childhood friends had grown tired of the rat race, and like so many other urbanites of that era, moved to Maine in search of “the good life.” They ended up in Blue Hill, where they planned to start a farm and study Zen Buddhism at Morgan Bay Zendo.
The call of the stage was hard to resist, however, and within a few months Raiten was directing “Fiddler on the Roof” for a local community theater company. A year later, New Surry Theatre was born.
Tamara Wilson Crowley was a little girl watching her mother in that production of “Fiddler,” and over the ensuing five decades had Raiten as a director, mentor and friend.
“I was just 5 years old then, and he was like a big magical being,” Crowley said. “I’m 55 years old now, and he remained a big, magical being in my life for 50 years.”
Raiten would direct “Fiddler” a whopping seven more times over the years, in addition to countless productions of other classic musicals and plays with both New Surry Theatre and the Grand Theatre in Ellsworth, and for high schools and other companies in Hancock and Waldo counties.
In 1989, Raiten was invited to live in Russia as a guest director for the winter theatrical season at the Komedy Theatre in Leningrad, by a visiting Russian director who attended New Surry Theatre plays in 1988. In 1991, Raiten brought 25 actors from the Blue Hill theater to Russia — just a few months after the fall of the Soviet Union — for a two-week tour during which they performed songs and scenes from American plays and musicals. The New Surry Theatre then brought its Russian collaborators to the U.S., touring across Maine and the rest of the country and Canada.
While directing in Russia, Raiten met his wife, Elena Bourakovsky, by whom he is survived. They lived together on a small farm in Blue Hill for the past 30 years, growing vegetables and making Russian sauerkraut and pickled beets.
In the 1990s, he and Bourakovsky founded Theatre ArtWORKS, a nonprofit aimed at introducing at-risk eastern Maine youth to theater. In the musicals they produced through that organization, like “Fiddler,” “Oliver” and “Annie,” casts could sometimes balloon to nearly 100 people, alongside a small army of crew members — Raiten simply couldn’t say no to anyone.
“I hate the idea of telling someone that they can’t do it, that they can’t be involved,” Raiten said in a 2017 interview. “We’ll find a place for them. We want them to have that experience, of theater. It can change a person’s life.”
Raiten continued directing and producing until 2017, when he finally retired just shy of his 80th birthday. In 2018, he was honored with the Maine Arts Commission’s Lifetime Achievement in the Arts award, in part thanks to letters of support from artists who learned under Raiten.
“His letters of support were so amazing and practically brought you to tears,” said former Maine Arts Commission director Julie Richard, in a 2018 Ellsworth American article. Richard recalled reading one from a young man “who talked about the skills he learned over the years and how they really changed his outlook on life and put him on a trajectory of success.
Though Raiten was a skilled director, actor, singer, dancer, set designer and just about any other talent you’d need for a career in the theater, he considered himself an educator above all other things.
“I consider myself a teacher before a director,” said Raiten. “I love to teach. I like to reach people… it’s a calling.”