BAR HARBOR — George Demas challenged high school students to do serious theater.
The former Mount Desert Island High School history teacher, and co-founder of the drama program at the school with Joyce Higgins, passed away last week. But for former students, colleagues and friends, his impact on the drama program will continue to be felt for a long time.
“He used to quote a pact that he and Joyce Higgins had made: that we would never do a traditional high school type play that are written specifically for teenage actors,” said Frank Bachman, who directs the fall musical and one of the spring plans.
“They would challenge [students] with classic scripts and known pieces,” Bachman continued, saying that Demas encouraged him to continue that tradition. Everyone involved in the drama program since, he said, has “had the same vision to challenge the students and never take an easy way out.”
Former teacher Rob Marshall worked in the drama program with Demas and Higgins in the early days. When the theater was dedicated to Higgins and Demas in 1992, he spoke fondly of his mentors and the program they created together.
“George, Joyce and I never asked more of them than they had to give. Some of you call that magic,” Marshall said at the dedication ceremony. “It is not magic; it is simple human nature to strive to do the best, and that’s all we ever tried to do. I as a young teacher learned that from George Demas and Joyce Higgins… And I, like a whole lot of people here, have taken that out into the world.”
“One of George’s favorite sayings was, ‘You’re only as good as your next show,'” said Laurie Beal, who was a student of Demas between 1972 and 1975. “I think he said this to us so we would not be so boastful about winning the one-act play contests as often as we did!”
She remembers sharing the stage with live animals in many productions, including an English sheepdog in “Camelot,” a baby pig in “Li’l Abner,” a lamb in “Electra” and a monkey in “Inherit the Wind.”
“He was such a brilliant director, who always thought outside the box, long before that cliché was ever even coined,” Beal continued. “He was always pushing out the proscenium wall in every possible way, and encouraged all of us to push back against all of the walls we encountered. He loathed pettiness, negativity, and blind adherence to convention. He had a wonderful rebellious streak, and his mind overflowed with ideas of ways to do things differently.
“He inspired all of us to try new ideas and to question authority, even his.”
Carlene Hirsch, longtime friend and colleague of Demas, remembers their first meeting at a one-act state competition in 1977.
“I was the technical director for the festival. We were in the middle of teaching another school and this powerful, though slight-framed man literally burst into the auditorium and said ‘Who is in charge here, what the h*ll is going on?’
“I told him he was violating a festival rule by being in the auditorium during another school’s work time,” Hirsch continued. “He immediately apologized to the school and me, and I escorted him out to give him clear direction to set storage. That was my introduction to George. He was a powerful director who got so much from his actors. Incidentally — MDIHS won!”
Years later, Hirsch would work for Demas during the summers at George’s Restaurant off Main Street in Bar Harbor.
“He was just as feisty as a chef as he was a director,” she said “George had a clear vision of how a dish should be prepared — with as equal passion as he directed his plays.”
Hirsch said Demas was “passionate, kind, giving, and promoted the best in his students, his productions and his cuisine. He had a strength of spirit and enthusiasm for life that was incomparable to anyone I’ve met… I shall miss him greatly.”
Casey Rush, English teacher and current director of the high school drama program, first met Demas in 1998 as a young director. “After having already heard a few ‘George’ stories from the time he directed MDI Drama, I was intimidated to approach him,” Rush recalled. “He was so gracious and had only the best wishes for me as I began my tenure as the director of the drama program that he and Joyce Higgins had established thirty years before.
“In my subsequent dealings with him, he was always so kind and remained as involved in the program as a patron, as a supporter of our students on the stage, in the booth and behind the scenes, and as a donor to the Black Rose Fund.”
The Black Rose Fund was created to support the theater facility and program in celebration of the life of former student Ashleigh M. Littlefield, who died in 2010.
Local filmmaker Jeff Dobbs remembered Demas as a friend and actor in his productions, including “Acadia Always.” Demas also did the voice of Henry David Thorough in Dobbs’ film “Katahdin.”
“George and I were good friends, and I always called him up when I needed a voice like his,” Dobbs said.
History of the MDI High School theater, by George Demas
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of an essay about the early years of drama productions at the high school, which opened in 1968. It appeared in programs of MDI Drama productions for several years and is posted on the drama department’s website.
It was dark, it was cold and frankly eerie the first time I stepped into this space. The core structure of the school was well underway, and finally it was time to finagle a peek at the theater. Having gotten into the place and with a little more light, it looked like a swimming pool — gently sloped with water at one end — yes, water. So that was my beginning, at least…
The theater did take shape and turned out to be one of the stellar high school spaces in New England. We were the “cock of the walk,” able to host other schools for drama festivals and workshops and eventually host the New England Drama Festival. Our theater program was non-stop during the school year; a fall full-length production, a musical, the one-act play in competition and a springtime theatre class workshop production. Truly theater was life and life was theatre.
But bricks, mortar and steel a theater do not make. It’s people, and in this case, it’s students. Educational theatre is after all about the growth of those individuals who are involved. Our program has been, and is, blessed with so much rich talent. At the outset, Joyce and I vowed we would never do a show like “Willy Takes His Medicine,” but only do truly challenging, culturally rich material — and so we did — and this tradition continues to this day. Our first play was “Rebel Without a Cause,” the first musical “My Fair Lady,” and the first one-act “Of Mice and Men.” There were those students who were the leads, those who performed artfully in support, those who were simply “walk on and exit right.”
Some students were among the top academically and others used the theatre program as their only real contact with the school, and therefore, did not drop out. The tech people — we always had awesome tech — did with smoke, light and mirrors what couldn’t be done with characters. So many wonderful students — nay, people — made the program and this theater.