A cultural jam festival tucked away in Maine

In the rugged Northeast state of Maine, many thought the best entertainment was the wash of the sea and the calls of meandering moose.

But earlier this month, more than 500 Mainers presented a feast of music, movement, and imagination that would be hard to match -- even by the folks down in ''that city'' at the mouth of the Hudson River. They demonstrated that regional arts festivals work, and can display a wealth of talent that is both profuse and professional.

It all happened at ''The Maine Festival: a celebration of Maine's creative spirit.'' For three days and nights the greensward of Bowdoin College in Brunswick played host to everything from fusion jazz to old-time banjo, traditional storytellers to political poets, and contra dancing to improvisational movement.

This year's event was dedicated to the late Marshall Dodge, the comic storyteller of the ''Bert and I'' recordings fame, who founded the festival six years ago. It was Dodge who provided the guiding vision to originate what he called ''a cultural jam session'' for the state. The jamming hasn't stopped since.

My first impression as I entered the Bowdoin College quadrangle was of an outdoors arts circus; most of the presentations were housed in one of eight yellow-and-white or blue-and-red striped tents. Around them clowns, jugglers, and stiltwalkers gamboled on the grass.

Standing amid this abundance of artistic offerings, one might ask: Why Maine?

Dancer Bryan Crabtree offered one answer: ''Why struggle in New York City when here I have a beautiful place to live and the people are good to you. I use New York as a resource by going down there in the winter to train. But I stay here because my work is well received and I can find spaces to choreograph and work in easily.''

In representative fashion, in one day Crabtree danced in three separate pieces -- solo, company, and duet -- and performed mime in the theater tent. He explained that the artistic community in Maine is ''very symbiotic,'' involving a great deal of cross-fertilization between music, dance, and theater.

One of the festival favorites was the improvisional theater, throwing together eight Maine actors and mimists for the first time to create skits and audience-participation improvisations. The comedy team Abrams and Anderson was ever present in the spontaneous madness. Don Anderson said the duo met in Chicago while working together in a comedy troupe. They came to Maine shortly thereafter ''to escape the rat race, where everybody was spinning their wheels.'' Partner Leslie Abrams continued, ''We wanted to see if we could live our lives differently.''

It worked. Today they tour New England festivals in the summer and hit the college circuit in the winter. Abrams proclaimed, ''I don't have to do anything besides performing, whereas my friends in New York work another job to survive.''

Storyteller Jackson Gilman, recently moved from Cambridge, Mass., related that Maine artists form a network of people who don't compete, but support one another. ''If you wanted to be famous and make money, you wouldn't be here.''

Traditional Maine arts certainly weren't left out of the spotlight. In the Folk Arts tent, woodcarvers and spinning wheels worked; R.C. Richard handled his chain saw like a sculptor's chisel as he carved a brown bear from a log in less than 30 minutes.

Meanwhile Alexander and Garrett Conover from Mt. Desert Isle demonstrated the old Indian arts of basket weaving and paddlemaking. Garrett pounded a long brown ash log to produce 6-foot-by-11/2-inch strips as Alexander wove them into a deep , durable basket. Garrett was pleased with his third appearance in the festival: ''It seems to attract many more natives than tourists; that's a sure sign of its success.''

Across the way from the folk arts area a Maine Old-Time Music Contest was held. Contestants played everything from a musical saw to the ukelele. The winner was Rick Weiss; he and his harmonica hail from Lubec, Maine, which is about as far Down East as you can get. Weiss called the festival ''an incredible synthesis'' of artistic spontaneity. ''It typifies what Maine is.''

But the performers aren't the only ones ebullient over the event. More than 13,000 people came this year, a record. Said one attendee, a California-based sculptor who spends summers in Maine: ''How truly this is a festival of the arts; it's all arts, there are no rides or gimmicks here. I don't know where else in the country you could get this range of arts in one place, including Los Angeles or New York.''

The festival's success didn't just happen overnight. One of the principal ingredients, said executive director Phyllis O'Neal, is that all performers, no matter how important or insignificant, receive $50 per day. No more, no less. Amazingly, few have turned the festival down and, she said, ''it breeds a real feeling of equality with all the arts.''

The festival also seeks no big-name entertainers, Ms. O'Neill said. ''Why give the stage to people who have already made it? We look to promote performers who haven't become bigtime.'' She explained that when Marshall Dodge founded the festival he wanted it to be for the performers' enjoyment, too -- an opportunity to view one another's works in a state where distances keep many from doing so. ''That generates an excitement for the artists, which the audience latches onto.''

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