AUBURN — In a TV interview not too long after Christopher Schario moved from New York City to Lewiston-Auburn to take over as artistic director at The Public Theatre, the Portland newscaster asked what, exactly, were the plans for the new professional theater.

“I said, ‘We’re going to make it an Equity theater: Union actors from New York, union stage managers, everything,'” Schario said. “Literally, right on camera, the guy went, ‘In Lewiston? Ha!'”

Flash forward 20-plus years. The Public Theatre has won Down East Magazine’s Readers Choice Poll for the best theatre in Maine four years in a row and the Twin Cities’ art scene is far from laughable. 

Schario, now executive/artistic director at the theater, spoke about the arts’ local influence — with a few humorous pitches to keep up funding — Thursday morning at the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s monthly breakfast at the Hilton Garden Inn.

“Arts and cultural institutions can raise up a community and can be used very aggressively for the economic development of a community,” Schario said.

Every dollar spent on a ticket to a performance or a painting spurs $2 worth of spending at another local business, he said.

Only 40 percent of his audience base lives in Androscoggin County, he said. The rest travel here, often staying after a show to have dinner or buy gas. The theater has subscribers from Bangor to Boston.

“The creative economy is an engine for economic growth,” Schario said. “People don’t move to a community because they’ve got the biggest Wal-Mart in New England; they don’t. It’s nice to have, but that’s not what’s going to draw people here. They do move to a community that has a thriving arts scene, that has a thriving cultural life. And we do have that in L-A.”

Ticket sales, he said, cover 40 percent of his budget. The rest relies on sponsorship and other money from away. 

“We get a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it all gets spent here,” Schario said. “We get a grant every year from the Shubert Foundation, based in New York, it all gets spent here. When we were doing our capital campaign, we got $250,000 from Jane’s Trust, which is Boston-based — every penny of it got spent here.”

The same can be said about a lot of local arts and cultural institutions, he said, pointing to places like Museum L-A and The Dolard and Priscilla Gendron Franco Center.

Schario included a plug for checking out Arts and Culture Lewiston Auburn‘s website for an extensive list of what’s happening locally and for checking out his next production, “Ripcord” — “Kind of like the ‘Odd Couple’ meets the ‘Golden Girls.'” He’ll be in New York casting for it next week.

“If you’re a business person in this community, you do know, what we bring to the community makes you look better,” Schario said. “If your community grows, your business grows. If the perception of this community is positive and upbeat and uplifting, your business opportunities are greater, so we believe … you should all give us money.”

He paused for the laughter and applause.

“Why else do you think I’m here?”

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Christopher Schario

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