TREMONT — About 10 years ago a young actor and theater teacher from New York took possession of a small house and even smaller barn in Bass Harbor he had inherited from his grandmother.
This young man, Andrew Simon, was somewhat possessed himself — with an idea. It was a rather crazy idea that he could transform his simple, white cottage and adjacent barn —perched somewhat precariously on a little inlet of the harbor— into a hub for performance arts; a place where artists from near and far could come work on their projects in an idyllic, supportive setting and maybe even put on a few shows for local audiences.
This summer, Simon launches his 10th year with his Barn Arts Collective (originally Mohawk Arts Collective) with a couple of dozen shows for adults and children planned at large and small venues throughout Mount Desert Island, including his own barn, and a few off-island sites as well.
“This is pretty close to what I imagined back then,” he said, “having a perfect place to practice my own creative work and sharing it with others was all part of my original plan. What I didn’t anticipate, and what has been the greatest gift of my life, was the support I have gotten from the community at large.”
At first local Tremont area folks, drawn in by a hand-painted sign in the dooryard promising “Live Show Tonight!” started trickle into the tiny barn to sit on rickety chairs and floor cushions as audience members.
Those live shows included music performances, scenes from classic plays and new plays in progress, monologues, dances, poetry readings and more. They were performed in the barn, around a fire pit. In several memorable instances, performers were inside the house with the audience outside and looking in through a picture window like peeping Toms.
Word got out and performing artists from New York and beyond applied for residency spots to develop their work here. This year Simon says they received more than 150 applications.
Performances of those works-in-progress have at times been marvelous and at other times mystifying. But they’re always intriguing.
Word got out that something weird and rather wonderful was happening in Bass Harbor. Local talents joined in — filmmakers, musicians, actors — who began to form an ensemble to augment whatever the visiting artists were doing and creating their own works.
Five years ago, one of those visiting artists, singer/songwriter Brittany Parker, stayed — enamored of Simon’s vision and the man himself. Their collaboration produced, among other works several original interactive children’s shows which they brought to libraries, schools and other public spaces and eventually the Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor.
There they also led a memorable live version of “The Rocky Horror Show” with Simon and Parker in the lead roles, to sold-out audiences. And they created a memorable music video advertisement for Gott’s Store, down the road from the Barn.
While they are no longer a couple, Simon and Parker continue to collaborate. Simon serves as founding artistic director and Parker is producing artistic director for Barn Arts.
Parker is also heading up a new project, a band called Bee Parks and the Hornets. Their interactive children’s show about the life of bees will perform at the Criterion twice a week from July 5 to Sept. 2.
“We are really excited about this show,” says Parker. “Bees are absolutely amazing, and we think the kids will have fun learning about them and singing tunes like ‘The Waggle Song.'”
They are also planning another collaboration with Acadia Community Theater for an outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” as a follow-up to last year’s hugely popular “The Tempest,” which was performed outdoors at the Saltair Inn in Bar Harbor.
At the same time they have formalized their relationship with home grown talent in a local residency series, giving area artists and writers a venue to present their works-in-progress to an audience. Next up is playwright Andrea Lepico, whose Homeisland Project is a collaboration with Simon that will be performed by local artists on July 7 at the Barn.
And of course the visiting artists continue to pour in, performing something every Saturday. This weekend it’s “Gig House Economy” which appears to be a podcast created in real time.
As supportive as the community as a whole has been, Simon acknowledges that it has not always been smooth sailing.
“It has been a learning and growing process for us,” he says. “How to do what we do and maintain a good relationship with our neighbors, and community at large, has been a challenge at times,” he says.
Zoning issues are a continuing concern and one former neighbor was so outraged by the music and laughter coming from the barn next door, he allegedly ran a noisy generator during the shows.
“Now we explain to our visiting artists about keeping the noise down, especially after 10 p.m.” Simon says. “Being a part of this community means being good neighbors.”
This summer the Barn Arts community extended to the outer islands with visiting artists traveling to Frenchboro to help the school children there create their own show.
As the Barn Arts Collective has grown in scope and geographically — last year the group took two of its shows to Japan — it has become necessary to mature as an organization as well.
“This year we have established a board of directors, bringing on some terrific people and still looking for others,” Simon says. “We have also taken on Christina Spurling as a residency coordinator, and in February we applied for our non-profit status which will make us more attractive to donors and open up more grant possibilities.”
In a decade, Simon has brought this crazy idea of his from a little summer diversion to a largely year-round and major island-wide cultural resource that is now straining the seams and beams of its namesake venue.
But Simon still has big ideas for the future.
While he says he plans to keep Barn Arts based on this side of the island he does envision finding a larger space to base its expanding operation and admits to looking longingly at Les McEachern’s old lumberyard site, just down the road.
“When we were at the Bird Theater in Tortoro Japan, which is also a small rural community, I studied their operation,” Simon says. “I came home with some ideas.”
Barn Arts has accomplished all of the goals Simon set out in a 2012 interview: “We envision ourselves coming back here for decades. We are constantly trying to expand the scope of our projects. We’re interested in meeting other people on the quietside and being a local outlet for the arts and to continually expand our involvement in the community.”
So when he now talks about a major performing arts venue here in Bass Harbor with its own theater and living quarters for staff and visiting artists, reaching out to middle schools on MDI, mainland, and the outer islands and perhaps even hosting a performing arts festival, well, it doesn’t sound all that crazy.
For a calendar of Barn Arts Collective events and other information go the http://www.barnartscollective.com/