Epic dramas spotlighting Broadway actors to comedies starring film celebs. Years of readers choice awards. And between six to eight productions each season, shown to a total of upward of 17,000 people over the years. Not bad for a little theater that started off in a borrowed space in the Auburn Mall.

Mike Genovese and Ellen Crawford appeared in The Cocktail Hour by A.R. Gurney in 2014. The Public Theatre photo

The Public Theatre opened its first season in 1991 in that mall space with two plays, and has since become a linchpin of cultural life in the Lewiston-Auburn area. By offering productions featuring professional actors from New York to Los Angeles; selling tickets to the community at reasonable prices (the generally max out at $25 and kids are $10); and welcoming audiences with details that feel personal (cookies and wine are sold in the lobby during intermission, and season ticket holders rave that the seating is structured so everyone has a good view of the stage), the local institution manages to be simultaneously big-time in its reach, and small-town in its character.

Much of that ability is due at least in part to how it has evolved over the years; community involvement has always been its foundation.

One year after its initial opening in its first space, the company moved into Lewiston’s historic Ritz movie house. The space, born as an automotive garage, became a social club in the 1930s, and then converted into a movie house in the 1940s. (Rumor has it that Stephen King attended sci-fi thrillers there in his youth.) It fell into disrepair over the years and sat empty for years, when well-meaning local volunteers stepped in to and preserve it as part of the town’s history. They successfully reconstructed it as a professional theater and, in 1998, The Public Theatre raised enough money to buy it, and moved in permanently.

As for how the company continually manages to attract such high caliber casts, that’s thanks to a long-held contract with the Actor’s Equity Association, the union of professional actors. Once they signed it in 1993, it effectively meant they must hire professional union actors — who they find and cast both within Maine and from across the country.

The theater’s next production in the winter season, which will be staged from Jan. 24 to Feb. 2, will be Michele Riml’s play, Sexy Laundry. The story portrays a midlife couple’s attempts to revitalize their romantic life — just in time for the run-up to Valentine’s Day.

Alexandra Hall is a longtime New England lifestyle writer who recently moved to Maine.


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