The Eastport Arts Center community spent a whirlwind four days with actor Ed Asner, his daughter and producer Liza Asner, and film and stage director Mitch Levine, as the political comedy God Help Us! was brought to the EAC stage. After an intensive period of rehearsal and technical arrangements, the show opened to an excited, brim-full house about 30 hours after the Asner team rolled into town. The accelerated production process gave rise to many learning opportunities and the making of countless fond memories and connections. 

“The whole weekend was really a wild ride!” commented Brian Giles, who had one of the non-speaking roles (an angel) in the production. “I have to admit that meeting Ed Asner made me feel pretty star-struck. I really felt honored to share a space with him. I am also astounded by his excellent mood and work ethic at 89! Moreover, I was astounded to learn we share a passion for autism awareness. The Asner foundation is dedicated to helping families find resources to assist with raising a child with autism!”

Ed Asner addresses his angels, Ann Cornelison and Brian Giles, during the show. Photo by Robin Farrin.

Of the production’s rapid pace, with Asner and company arriving Friday midday and instantly jumping into preparation for a Saturday opening night, Giles was a fan: “It was the best way to do theater: get in, get it done, get out! I am truly impressed with the work of the arts center and its crew for hanging lights, building sets, running sound and the like! Chris Grannis is a superhero.” 

For Chris Grannis, Director of the EAC, preparations for the production were a family affair, as husband Steve and son Reuben logged many hours in set construction and particularly in lighting the show. 

As Giles reported, “Reuben Grannis practiced some next-level skills on a ladder hanging lights, and to quote Mitch Levine: ‘Reuben is the most agile theater tech I have ever worked with!’”  

Reflecting on these kudos, Chris Grannis and Jean Wilhelm, a longtime Board member of EAC and Stage East, recalled a time when Chris and Steve would have to keep pulling a very young Reuben off of the scaffolding and ladders. During the technical rehearsals, seeing Steve’s turn to climb, Levine quipped, “Now I see where he gets it!”

Reuben, who at 22 was the youngest person involved with the production, explained that in addition to working on plays with his parents, he received much of his training on theatrical lighting while participating in the High School One Act Play competition with the Washington Academy Players. “They have a techie olympics where you have to assemble lights, wrap up cords, build a box, etc., while being timed.” About the God Help Us! production experience, he noted, “Everyone who showed up to help with the lighting on Friday was completely unfamiliar with how the lights were set up in the theater and 5 people ended up working 12 hours over three days to figure how to get a lighting scheme for the show. Mitch was a wealth of information for us and it was a fantastic learning experience for everyone to work with a professional outfit. Under pressure on Saturday to get the job done, everyone kept positive and constructive despite the time crunch. After the show Jean Wilhelm said, ‘The lighting looked amazing, how much of the equipment is theirs?’ To which we could say: none of it! Mitch was flexible with what we had, but still came out with a fantastic production.”

Steve, Reuben and Chris Grannis, integral players behind-the-scenes with set construction and lighting, pause for a photo op with Ed Asner.

With another view of the busy technical crunch period, EAC and Stage East Island Institute Fellow Mark Macey commented, “The technical rehearsals before a production opens are sometimes jokingly referred to as ‘Hell Week’ because of the long hours and often stressful conditions in which they occur. Luckily, the dedication, patience, and generosity of the team at the EAC made opening God Help Us! much more like heaven. The work was hard, but what could be better after all that hard work than hearing a theater full of strangers sit together and laugh at God?”

“After my first production at the EAC, I find myself impressed by the dedication and cheerfulness of the staff and volunteers,” continued Macey, a performance and theater artist in his own right. “I have always considered the mark of true professionalism to be kindness and the arts center’s team has it in spades!”

Jenie M. Smith blisters real-life husband Peter Frewen with barbed retorts, with Asner as the often-joking referee. Photo by Brandy Argir.

Hard-working behind-the-scenes volunteer and sound tech Bernie Cecire dubbed the weekend’s work “a great and effective effort!,” and noted, “Mitch, Liza and Ed were all very professional and easy to get along with and very knowledgeable. Ed was generous and very friendly.” He explained that it was an educational experience to participate in a show with cues called by the stage manager, “Which apparently is the way it is done at most theaters!”

The Asner team, according to Cecire, “adapted to our limited resources very quickly. I have to add high praise to Chris, Steve, and Reuben Grannis as well as Colby Stoker and Mark Macey. Not to forget those who worked on the set.”

Some of the happy memories from the production happened offstage, and much of these involved feeding the Asner team. “The first night Ed was there, Friday night, I came in with some moose stew that Colby had just made,” noted Marissa Stoker, who volunteered as an usher for the show, and whose husband Colby Stoker worked the thunderclap effects up in the booth. “I didn’t know if there would be any food there. When I arrived there was a beautiful spread that I believe was made by Jenie Smith;  she had made a smoked salmon chowder and excellent pumpkin cheesecake among other things that were divine. It was really one of the best meals I’ve had in Maine. I was glad that we could share such authentic regional fare with Ed and Liza and Mitch.”

Another shared food experience was “Ed Asner’s Kugel” made by community member Pam Koenig from her former mother-in-law’s recipe. “I used to make it a lot for Jewish holidays and other meals like pot lucks,” said Koenig. “There are many ways to make kugel but I’ve only made his recipe.” 

Pam Koenig, who as part of an outpouring of community hospitality for the Asner team cooked a double batch of “Ed Asner’s Kugel,” got to share a moment with the star after the Sunday show. Photo by Jenie M. Smith.

“Being the generous, nurturing gal she is,” noted cast member Ann Cornelison, “Pam brought not one but two pans of kugel to the real Ed. One pan was devoured by all at the cast party, and the other one went along to Canada with Ed, Liza and Mitch, to sustain them on their continued journey.”

“The night before we left,” recalled Liza, “we were at a local bar/restaurant and had the best seafood chowder in the world and when we left the entire bar gave my father a standing ovation!” 

Cornelison reported, “As our cast party was winding down and the star was slowly making his way to the exit, someone in the Old Sow Grill called out, ‘Hey, everyone! Ed Asner’s in the house, and he is leaving now!’ The entire crowd broke into loud and enthusiastic cheers and applause, which continued until he was out the door. You have no idea how touched Ed, Liza and Mitch were by this act. Believe it or not, this is an uncommon thing for him.”

Peter Frewen and Jenie M. Smith duke out their differences, with Asner as holy arbiter. Photo by Robin Farrin.

“Impressive it was to see how many audience members raised hands at having come from outside Washington County,” noted Board member Marged Higginson. “Eastport Arts Center definitely is on the map. It was a delightful show, carried out by people who went so far beyond what one could hope to expect their expertise to be.”

“We never imagined we would be bringing the show to the easternmost city of the United States but are so grateful we did,” said Liza. “It is a beautiful area, and has a vibrant community spirit. We were overjoyed with the turnout and couldn’t have asked for a better audience reaction to both shows.”