The Celebration Barn Theater in South Paris is celebrating its 50th year this summer. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

PARIS — It’s an unexpected sight in the backwoods of Maine: people wearing Vaudeville-style costumes for a theater class in a former horse barn.

Unexpected unless you’re visiting Celebration Barn Theater.

It’s been hosting workshops in “physical theater” such as mime for the past 50 years.

World-famous performer and teacher Tony Montanaro bought the property in the village of South Paris — house, barn and 11 acres — in 1972. He invited people to come and learn his craft.

“Tony was so charismatic,” Executive Artistic Director David Bruin said during a recent interview. “He taught (his students) how to live, how to make a living in physical theater.”

The barn celebrated its 50th anniversary this month with two nights of a one-woman, multimedia show presented by Tony Montanaro’s widow, Karen Montanaro.

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The show, titled “Tony Montanaro, A Love Story,” was described on the theater’s website as a “funny, intimate, and breathtaking account of the personal and professional relationship between Tony and Karen,” a ballet dancer.

The theater also held a sold-out 50th Anniversary Spectacular with performances by “legendary clowns” Bill Irwin and Avner Eisenberg on July 30.

Tony and Karen Montanaro perform at the Celebration Barn in South Paris in this undated photo. Celebration Barn photo

Tony Montanaro is considered one of the world’s great masters of mime. He studied with Marcel Marceau and Marceau’s teacher, Etienne Decroux.

Tony eventually developed his own style. He stopped wearing whiteface and started talking on stage.

He defined mime as “physical eloquence,” communicating through movement.

“He had a really fine-tuned sense of how to create characters and tell a story, how to convey a relationship,” Bruin said. “He really was masterful at that.”

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Students at Celebration Barn are trained in this tradition.

“The central expression (in physical theater) is the body in space,” Bruin said. The craft includes mime, juggling and clown performers. “Not the red-nose kind,” he said. More in the “great tradition” of Shakespearean tricksters who generally cause trouble and create chaos. Clown training is fairly rigorous, Bruin said. It teaches people how to “unlock misbehavior.”

Eisenberg, also known as Avner the Eccentric, teaches clown performance. He is an instructor at the barn this summer. Some students came just to work with him, Bruin said.

Marina of Russia, left, and Aaron Tucker of Baltimore practice lifting themselves up to an invisible table during a recent performance workshop at the Celebration Barn Theater in South Paris. Tyler Costigan, center, keeps track of the tabletop. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Eisenberg describes physical theater as “moving visual poetry,” Bruin said. “Moving from image to image to image.”

The movements are “stylistic, visually strong and economical,” he said.

He related a story about Montanaro performing a tug-of-war on stage, by himself. “After the show, a kid came up to him,” Bruin said. “The kid was talking about the other man, the person on the other end of the (imaginary) rope.”

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One way to read that is that Montanaro successfully created an illusion, Bruin said. He convinced people that something not there was there.

“Another read is that there was a person on the other end,” Bruin said.

He said that when Montanaro’s former students perform today, the ‘other’ on stage is Montanaro. “He’s with them. They feel his presence.”

Physical theater grew out of working-class culture, Bruin said. It’s rooted in the tradition of farmers and tradesmen telling stories and acting out scenes in village squares.

“It unites us socially and politically,” he said.

In that vein, he plans to hold workshops next year on anti-capitalism for artists.

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Tony “Boney” Montanaro with his ensemble in the 1970s. Celebration Barn photo

THE BARN EVOLVES

When Montanaro bought the farm in 1972, it was in bad shape, Bruin said. The lower level of the barn, built in 1902, had been used to shelter horses and pigs. Hay was stored above.

One of Bruin’s favorite stories is that renovating the barn into a theater involved shoveling out a 7-foot-high pile of petrified horse manure. Montanaro did it himself.

By the time he settled in Maine, Montanaro had brought his style of mime to the world through touring, television, and teaching, according to the theater’s website.

He wanted to do more.

Avner Eisenberg, right, considered one of the world’s greatest clowns but perhaps best known for his scene-stealing role in the Michael Douglas movie “Jewel of the Nile,” demonstrates a basic mime technique at Celebration Barn Theater recently with the help of student Tyler Costigan of Yarmouth. Eisenberg, known as Avner the Eccentric, was leading his workshop Principles of Eccentric Performance at the venue in South Paris. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“He came here because he really believed in the value of training,” Bruin said. “He felt this was a place where he could conduct experiments in how to improve his craft.”

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For more than 20 years, Celebration Barn served as the home base for Montanaro’s Celebration Mime Ensemble. Performers came from around the country and beyond to train with him.

Celebration Barn alumni have gone on to careers in television, film and theater, some working as puppeteers on “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show, and others performing in Cirque du Soleil.

One former student is well-known locally as a performing artist. Mike Miclon of Buckfield, who created the Oddfellow Theater and now brings his “Early Evening Show” to the barn, studied with Tony in the 1980s.

“Tony, for a man of small stature, was a giant of a personality,” Miclon said. “He could be fierce and a little intimidating, but somehow always loving. He loved artistic discovery and he reveled in our successes.”

The Celebration Barn in South Paris is an iconic red building that houses Celebration Barn Theater, founded in 1972 by Tony Montanaro. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Montanaro was Miclon’s most passionate teacher and cheerleader, he said.

“To this day, my greatest achievement was that Tony asked me to come to his master class as my hunchback character to improvise for his students,” Miclon said. “He loved this character and I have never been more honored.”

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Bruin, a young teen when Montanaro died, never met him, but he seems to have sponged up every detail of the man.

“One of the things I appreciate was that he was a fairly spiritual guy,” Bruin said. “He would say he saw the face of God in every student.”

Montanaro was succeeded as artistic director of Celebration Barn in 1988 by business partners Leland Faulkner and Carolyn Brett.

Tony continued to tour and perform a mime/dance show with his wife, Karen. Tony died in 2002 from stomach cancer.

The theater and school continued under the direction of Faulkner and Brett until 2006. Then Amanda Huotari took over and held the position for 15 years. Bruin was hired in the fall of 2021.

He said Huotari “vastly improved” fundraising and hired more professionals.

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During her tenure, the barn offered workshops in clown, bouffon, devising and professional development. She expanded the barn’s Show Series by booking world-class touring artists.

She launched a program called Theater in Schools that brought theater to Oxford Hills elementary students. Before the pandemic, pupils would also visit the barn.

“For fourth- and fifth-graders it was a way to help them connect internal feelings and express their need to move,” Bruin said.

The original house and barn, built in 1902, that Tony Montanaro transformed into Celebration Barn. Celebration Barn photo

Huotari also led a fundraising campaign to build cabins on the property for students. The four solar-powered cabins each has room for four students. Before the cabins, students lived in the upstairs of the barn.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the barn offered workshops online. Huotari’s initiative has served hundreds of artists from more than 25 countries.

Bruin, nearly a year on the job, said his ambition has been to bring in new instructors, which he has done “pretty successfully.”

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He knows performers from working as a producer and curator in New York City theaters at all levels, from Off-Off-Broadway to Broadway, he said.

“There are so many interesting artists working in the cabaret tradition,” he said. “Very talented, very funny. It’s that quality of the relationship with the audience that really excites me.”

That relationship can seem especially intimate in the theater at Celebration Barn. The stage is floor-level and the space is small, with 55 fixed seats. Another 70 modular seats are available.

“Audience reaction is central to what we do here,” Bruin said. “Connection is the key component.”

Tony Montanaro, founder of the Celebration Barn in South Paris in 1972, is memorialized in photos throughout the property. He died in 2002. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal


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