You Can’t Sit Here, an original children’s opera presented by Eastport Arts Center last month was a riveting success for participants and audiences, spanning four years’ work for the writers and producers, and nearly a year for the cast of 10 students.

A dedicated group of theater-makers, including nearly two dozen volunteers, performers’ families and nine musicians brought the project to completion: a blockbuster week with performances for students of 14 area schools and 6 homeschooling groups, and a ‘standing room only’ finale.

Composer/conductor Greg Biss (from left) works with student performers while director Brian Schuth (back to the camera, center) and set designer Chris Grannis (right) weigh in. Photo by Carol Dougherty.

Composed by Gregory Biss to a libretto by Catherine J.S. Lee, the piece explores issues faced by youth in schools: cliques and divisions; parents’ problems casting shadows; and the difficulty of making friends. Liam, played by William E. Skinner (12, Eastport), hears the opera’s title early on, with castmates’ mocking “You Can’t Sit Here,” sung to the new kid trying to find a seat at lunch. The story’s arc allows his character to turn the tables on those who’d exclude him, ingeniously leveling the field between players.

Skinner, who’d never acted or sung before the show, quipped to an opening day audience: “Acting is like being thrown in front of a truck!” Happily, this feeling disappeared after day one, and he noted that the effort, “Was worth it.” 

Tensions between ‘new kid’ Liam (William E. Skinner, standing), ‘outcast’ Zinnia (Emma Mallar, from left), ‘cool kid’ Audrey (Molly Vignola) and ‘tough guy’ Mason (Wyatt Beers) are drawn in this scene from ‘You Can’t Sit Here’. Photo by Carol Dougherty.

Laura Brown, mother of Nora (10, Pembroke), another theater first-timer who played Liam’s sister, noted: “Watching her confidence grow on stage … was so rewarding as a parent.”
“I enjoyed watching them bloom,” agreed Pam Barnes, mother of ‘classmate’ Torin (11, Eastport).

Laura Brown applies daughter Nora’s stage makeup while son Jamie looks on. Photo by Carol Dougherty.

Casting set ‘new kid’ Liam against ‘tough guy’ Wyatt Beers (13, Eastport), ‘cool kid’ Molly Vignola (15, Perry), and outcast Emma Mallar (12, Machiasport). Lino Perez (17, Perry) and Audrey Andrews (18, Eastport), played the parents (and Andrews the schoolteacher); and additional classmates were Darby-Ann Downes (10, Charlotte) and Robin Leavitt (10, Pembroke).

Attendees appreciated the “Timely theme” (Susan Almendinger, principal, Fort O’Brien School, Machiasport), and “Refreshing handling of topics that relate [to students’] every day lives” (Susan Giles, Alexander Elementary School staff/parent). Almendinger noted that FOB students have been engaged with role-playing and discussion of bullying, and the show was a great fit.

Students of several schools, homeschooling families and guests enjoy ‘You Can’t Sit Here’ at Centre Street Congregational Church, Machias. Photo by Lauren Koss.
Musicians are at the ready and some homeschooling families—including vocal coach Eustacia Landrum and children—are in place; just waiting on two school buses before the show begins! Photo by Jude Kempe, sound operator.

Another enthusiastic response came from Tessa Ftorek, who brought fresh-baked cookies on one of the busy two-show days in Eastport. “I just LOVED the opera for children! To see how actors, writers, musicians and stage crew of all ages came together to produce and perform You Can’t Sit Here was phenomenal! Our community is blessed to have an abundance of talent as witnessed in this performance as well as everything the Eastport Arts Center sponsors! The variety of performing and visual arts is versatile and there is something for everyone!”

Tessa Ftorek brought cookies! EAC staffer Lauren Koss is psyched! (Michael Morse and Mona Ingrid Love, who with Cynthia Morse swiftly installed the Student Art Exhibition in time for many students to see it on show days, are visible at back). Photo by Carol Dougherty.

Looking back to her own history with the performing arts, Ftorek added, “When I see children perform it takes me back to my teaching days at the Clark school in Perry. Motivated and inspired by my own wonderful music teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Brown in Eastport, each year I had my elementary school students put on a play and recite poems and sing songs. It warms my heart to see young people getting involved in music and drama.

Gregory Biss conducts. Photo by Carol Dougherty.

New EAC volunteer Carol Dougherty worked to document the shows and the process, and assisted with greeting and seating school visitors, while husband Dale ran lights alongside sound tech Jude Kempe. Dougherty commented, “What resonates with me is the community aspect of this (our first project so to speak). Seeing the kids stay the course and the orchestra blending with them was a moving experience.

I thought this was another great example of the stellar work of the young people of Washington County,” noted Jane Lanctot, pianist, who also applauded the Shead students who recently took the gold in state music competitions. “The production was really a fantastic accomplishment for those involved. Even though the plot was aimed at school-aged kids, everyone benefited from the strong message about being kind to others, especially those who differ from us. Greg’s composing painted with a sophisticated chromatic and atonal brush, with complex rhythms which brought out the different colors of the woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion. It was an intense experience for the musicians. Furthermore, people were intrigued by the elegance and versatility of [Chris Grannis’] set design.” 

Cast members practice makeup arts on each other, with direction from veteran performer Melissa Newcomb. Photo by Carol Dougherty.

There were many rehearsals (never enough), tough music, a tight schedule, kids living miles away, adolescent energy and drama, details and more details, cold days, rainy days, colds, school conflicts, limited funds …” recalled Helen Swallow, who with co-producer Sarah Dalton-Phillips and Biss form the trio responsible for Music for Children projects, of which this was 4th since 2014.

Co-producer and clarinetist Helen Swallow (above) talks to student attendees as part of the musicians’ demonstration of their instruments; co-producer and stage manager Sarah Dalton-Phillips energetically leads a question-and-answer session. Photos by Lauren Koss.

“We’re so glad we came to see it,” wrote Diana Bordeau Jones, from Trescott, who brought her two homeschooled boys to a Machias show, then spent time talking through the themes with them afterward. Hers was one of 6 homeschooling family groups who joined in for the weekday student shows. “Great performance. Excellent message.” 

Catherine Adelman, EAC Board president, extended congratulations “To all the children, their families, volunteers and professionals who brought this intergenerational project to a successful conclusion through their hard work and dedication. The children’s opera production was an amazing coming together of creativity and community!

Following are many images from the production! Please find additional information in a writeup by Helen Swallow, plus details of production roles and thanks to community members, here.