The Godmother of the Stagemobile

Stagemobile-sepia-photo
An early unnamed production of the Children’s Theatre of Maine

We learned recently of the passing of a remarkable and singular woman; one that is deeply entwined with our history. Priscilla Whitehouse Rand passed away this spring in Bridgton, ME, an area where she had spent many years at work and at play.

“Like painting, like playing an instrument,

theater is a vital art form,” – Priscilla Rand

Priscilla was the inventor of the Stagemobile, a truly fantastic portable stage that was quite an attraction wherever it went. As the name suggests, this spectacle, chauffeured to its next performance location via a truck, was a splash during the 1950s when it was used regularly by the Boston Children’s Theatre. It was Priscilla’s early involvement with the Children’s Theatre of Maine, and our nascent proto-Stagemobile, that encouraged Priscilla to replicate its success when she relocated to Boston. there, she taught theatre in Dorchester during the 60s and 70s, and continued to be an ardent supporter of the children’s theatre programs, even after her retirement.

Rest easy, Mrs. Rand, and thank you for thinking outside the box of four walls, and taking vital art to the streets. That idea is so important to us, even so many years later. We are indebted.

White Cane Walk Grand Marshals: Senator King and our own Renaldo Rodriguez!

Senator Angus King and Renaldo Rodriguez chat about Maine’s White Cane Law while puppeteer Bridget Fehrs looks on.
Senator Angus King and Renaldo Rodriguez chat about Maine’s White Cane Law while puppeteer Bridget Fehrs looks on.

Independence is the word! Renaldo Rodriguez and Senator Angus King have accepted invitations to be the Marshals of the 18th annual Iris Network White Cane Walk for Independence on Saturday, October 19th. The white cane is a mobility tool for individuals who are visually impaired or blind and October is White Cane Safety month. It symbolizes independence, something both Renaldo and Senator King believe in.

Who is Renaldo Rodriguez? The White Cane Walk’s Grand Marshal, Renaldo is a member of the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine’s Kids on the Block® puppet troupe, a disability-awareness program. Theatre Artistic Director Reba Short notes, “KOTB teaches children about disabilities and to accept them.  Renaldo is an 11 year old boy who uses a white cane. He teaches kids about visual impairment and blindness. We are delighted that Renaldo will be leading the Walk this year!”

Senator King signed the White Cane Bill into law in 1999 when he was then Governor of the State of Maine. Maine’s White Cane Law ensures that people who are visually impaired or blind and who use a white cane or dog guide have the same right as sighted pedestrians to travel safely on foot. The Law notes that traffic should yield, as always to pedestrians in the cross-walk. Drivers should not shout or gesture at individuals using a white cane or a dog guide.

The White Cane Walk for Independence is held every October to coincide with White Cane Safety month. It starts and ends at Monument Square in Portland. It is a cheerful 1.2 mile stroll through the Old Port and the proceeds raised provide training, education and support for people with vision loss or blindness throughout the State of Maine.

About The Iris Network

The Iris Network is a state-wide, community-based private nonprofit with a vision of building a world where no person is limited by visual impairment or blindness and everyone is an advocate for eye health and the needs of people who are visually impaired or blind.  Based in Portland, The Iris Network has field-offices in Saco, Lewiston, Bangor, Houlton, Augusta and Rockland.   For more information about any vision loss related issue, visit The Iris Network at www.theiris.org.

Update: Playscape will pop-up once again on August 31st!

Earlier this summer, we posted about our first Pop-Up Playscape event, which was a huge hit! Nearly 100 kids and adults came out to create an amazing box city with countless creative twists. Lots of people took notice! The event was featured in The Forecaster, on WCSH6, and it’s even been highlighted on the home page of the Maine Community Foundation (support for this project came from their Cumberland County Fund).

Here's where to find us on Saturday, 8/31 from 12-6.
Here’s where to find us on Saturday, 8/31 from 12-6.

There’s one more chance to get in on the fun! We’ll be on the Eastern Promenade on Saturday, August 31st. Want to know a little more before you go – like why this project is great for developing young minds? I’ve put together some background info about open-ended play, as well as some insider tips for the day of the event. No time to read ahead? No problem! Just arrive with an open mind and some willing builders, and the rest will fall into place. We’ll see you there! (Don’t forget to RSVP on Facebook and share it with your friends!)

What is “open-ended” or “child directed” play?

Stated simply, it just means going with the flow. There is no pressure or rules to follow. The point is not to produce a specific finished product. It’s all about free play and exploration — the opportunity to invent and discover.

Kids led the way at our first Pop-Up Playscape event on 7/22.
Kids led the way at our first Pop-Up Playscape event on 7/22.

What are “loose parts”?

Loose parts (like boxes, sticks and stones, bottle caps or other recycled materials) are objects that are easily moved and used for play, games and art. They can be carried, rolled, lifted, piled, or combined to create different types of structures and experiences.

Why are we playing with loose parts and letting the children drive?

To encourage healthy development and build life important life skills! Play and art-making contribute to growth and development because they encourage children to test, explore and discover in a safe space. This type of play requires children to manipulate their environment and experiment with different materials in order to learn. They figure things out for themselves! Stationary materials or a set of rules can restrict the ways children can manipulate the environment, thereby restricting opportunities for creativity, problem-solving or taking healthy risks. Environments like Pop-Up Playscapes aim to be rich in loose parts and allow for extensive manipulation of the environment and experimentation that can lead to innovation. Plus, when kids have a chance to make something amazing on their own without being “right” or “wrong,” they build self-esteem.

Continue reading “Update: Playscape will pop-up once again on August 31st!”

Penguins in Portland: Making a Splash!

Last April, I received a large manila envelope from Skillin Elementary School. Inside I found a stack of handwritten letters from every student in Diana Violette’s second grade classroom asking me to build a live penguin exhibit here at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. Each letter offered a persuasive argument for the exhibit, and several suggested specific species and even offered tips for overcoming potential challenges. All were accompanied by colorful illustrations and diagrams.

The letters were written as part of an assignment given to the class by Amber Lane, a student teacher from University of New England. They were so convincing that I was compelled to respond to them publicly. While we weren’t to build a penguin habitat, we have opened Penguins in Portland, an exhibition of the students’ letters and illustrations alongside penguin photographs by Brian Sullivan. The exhibit will be on display in our front stairwell gallery through November 12.

On Monday, the students who sent the letters (now third graders) came to see their work on display at the Children’s Museum. While the letters were submitted by just one classroom, the entire third grade came to see the exhibit. It was thrilling to see the kids respond to their work, and to see how happy all the students were for their classmates. It was also exciting to see how much they had learned – and still remembered – from the project. As they ran up and down the stairs searching for their work, they also made very astute observations about the penguin photos!

Reporters from The Current and The Forecaster were there to document the students’ visit and take photos – click through to read their stories:

The Forecaster: South Portland students ask for penguins, get Portland art exhibit by David Harry

The Current: South Portland students inspire museum project by Duke Harrington

A modern Maine explorer

Maine Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts
Janet's book will be available June 6.

As my friends and family can attest, I’m a bit nuts about museums. Day trips and vacations are never complete without discovering a new museum or two. One of the things I love about working in public relations here at the Museum & Theatre is giving tours – when I guide someone through our exhibits, I find that I get to rediscover it for myself, too! Over a year ago, I met writer Janet Mendelsohn, who was working on a book about museums in Maine. Janet had visited us before to write this neat article for the Boston Globe about our Camera Obscura, but this was the first time she explored the Museum & Theatre from top to bottom, asking insightful questions and observing our visitors at play. She went on to do that with dozens of other museums and has now published the resulting book, Maine Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts. I wanted to learn more about her journey through Maine and get tips on which museums to hit on my next day trip, so I asked Janet to share some of her findings with us.

Lucy:   What made you decide to write about museums in Maine?

Janet:  When I travel, I visit museums—Boston, New York, Paris, Madrid,

Janet Mendelsohn (photo by Stu Rosner)

 Atlanta, Washington. While obviously there are great collections in all those cities, my favorites are in Maine. People here feel and express a more powerful connection to both this place and the past. The stories they choose to tell through fine and folk art, history and memorabilia, from logging equipment to scrimshaw, is the story of Maine and the nation and it’s most often told on a personal level. In local history museums, we hear from mill girls and women struggling to hold on to their homes when their young husbands went off to fight in the Civil War. Here at the Children’s Museum, kids can ‘try on’ what it’s like to be a farmer or to work on cars. Moreover, Maine’s museum directors, curators, staff and volunteers are excited about what they do. They’re happy to answer questions, even if you don’t have a reporter’s notebook in your hand. It was a fun project.    

Lucy: For many people, being a travel writer sounds like a dream job! How did you find success in this field? 

Janet:  I wish I could say I’m one of those lucky journalists who get to travel the globe and someone else picks up the bill. I’m not. But as a freelancer, when I travel I can often interest an editor in a related story and get paid for writing it, which is what I love to do most. My first freelance piece about Maine, about 12 years ago, was for Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors, a wonderful magazine. I had gone to the Isles of Shoals, off Kittery and Portsmouth, to visit the recreation of Celia Thaxter’s Island Garden. It’s so remote and simple but magical, with old fashioned flowers like those she described in her book. I tried to capture that sense of distance, real and historical. I guess it worked because I’ve been writing for Maine Boats ever since.

Lucy: Clearly you have a love for museums (and, given my occupation, so do I!). What do you say to someone who thinks that museums are old-fashioned or stuffy? How would you convince the contemporary consumer of the relevance of museums in our current, high-speed culture?

Janet: Another reason I wrote the book is to help kids and adults discover

Nowetah's American Indian Museum in New Portland displays Native American arts and crafts of all the Americas. Photo by Janet Mendelsohn.

 that museums today are fun. In this economy, they can’t survive if they don’t get creative about using new technology, installing multimedia exhibits, and planning events that engage people (including parents!) with shorter attention spans. We’re all so attached to our cell phones. Video games keep setting the bar higher for visual effects. Plus many of us have less money to spend on travel and entertainment, so it had better be worthwhile if they’re going to get us in the door. Museums in Maine are now lending visitors iPads and installing high tech kiosks to enhance what we see and do in the galleries. Many have terrific summer and vacation week programs for children and adults, special events like logging competitions and military reenactments. As for relevance?  Until you see a great painting or the craftsmanship of a Native American basket up close, you can’t appreciate its beauty. Until you’re face-to-face with textile looms, whaling gear or ice harvesting tools, you can’t appreciate what those jobs were like.   

Lucy: The “oddities” part of the title makes me very curious! What did you discover on your journey through Maine that was most surprising – your “oddest oddity,” shall we say?

Janet:  I’d have to say the Umbrella Cover Museum on Peaks Island, although the Bigfoot specimens at the International Cryptozoology Museum are right up there. But they’re not the only ones. [Note: the Criptozoology Museum is just a few blocks west of us on Congress Street! -Lucy]

 
 
 

Would-be sea captains and sailors find plenty of hands-on activities at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. Photo courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum.

Lucy: Are there any hidden gems for families – spots parents could take children that seem to be under the radar?

Janet:  Maine Maritime Museums in Bath has a one-weekend family boatbuilding workshop, a pirate ship to climb all over and lighthouse and nature cruises on the Kennebec. Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport has a hands-on marine science lab and the “Peapod” where kids can dress up in 19th century clothing, play with ships models and learn to tie knots. The Wendell Gilley Museum of wood carving, on Mount Desert Island, has art, natural history and wildlife protection programs, including carving lessons for ages 11 and up.  

Lucy: Which destination was your personal favorite? Was there one place you connected with more than any other?

Janet: You want me to choose? The Portland Museum of Art and the Farnsworth Art Museum are national caliber, the Colby and Bowdoin college art collections probably are, too. The Saco Museum brought history alive for me with its personal stories. The Osher Map Library collection is full of exquisite rare art that served a practical purpose. Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village was especially interesting. It’s the only active Shaker community left in the world. I could go on and on.

Lucy: Are you already thinking about your next writing adventure? What topic would you like to explore next?

Janet:  I recently visited Louisa May Alcott’s home, Orchard House, where she wrote Little Women. I keep thinking about how I felt standing beside the little desk in her bedroom where she wrote the book. It’s telling me something but I’m not yet sure what.

Want to win a signed copy of Janet’s book? Visit our Facebook page and keep an eye out for the question we post on June 7. Answer it and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win a signed copy of Maine Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts (Countryman Press).

We’re on TV!

I can’t stop watching this YouTube clip. No, it’s not a cat playing the piano – it’s the new public service announcement created for us by WCSH 6! It’s exciting to see my home away from home on TV, of course, but what really keeps me watching is the spirit of play it captures. When I wander the Museum with a regular still camera, I get a lot of fun shots, but parents always seem to duck out of the way. Nathan, who shot the video, was able to capture the joy, exuberance and silliness that parents get to express when they’re at play here with their children. What I see in the PSA that’s so special is the same thing I see every day, but never seem to capture on film: parents and children learning from each other and exploring together.

We can’t thank WCSH and the team behind this PSA – Caroline, Aimee and Nathan – enough for their great work on this! Keep an eye out for the clip the next time you’re watching channel 6!