INDUSTRY — When she’s not teaching fourth grade at the Mill Stream Elementary School, Diane Leeman is painting, stage directing and teaching basket weaving.

An effervescent blonde, her sunny attitude carries naturally from the classroom to Sparrow’s Nest, the community arts center where Leeman is stage manager for a new theater and a member of the board of directors.

This summer Sparrow’s Nest is celebrating the debut of its theater program for adults, with performances of “Almost, Maine,” a show about falling in love from the perspective of nine couples in a fictional town called Almost, Maine.

The 75-seat theater, built with the help of volunteers from Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Del., has come a long way since it operated as a church, which closed in 2006. It has been undergoing renovations and slowly transforming to an arts center in the years since.

The bright yellow building — surrounded by gardens of daffodils and plastic pink flamingos, relics from the theater’s rendition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” last spring — appears with doors open around a bend on Route 148 in Industry, most evenings as actors participate in dress rehearsals.

“Even though its not a church anymore, we continue to think of what we do here as a ministry. It’s a way of people being able to experience a creative process that they might not otherwise experience,” said Leeman, who is 52 and lives in Anson with her husband, Fred Liebfried, the show’s director.

In addition to the other arts-based programs Sparrow’s Nest offers the community, including drawing and photography classes, and last summer’s basket weaving classes taught by Leeman, the organization has taken on the task of becoming a community theater since December, when it put on “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

Community theater in focus

Community theater, according to Liebfried, means that people from all walks of life are responsible for all aspects of the show, including the acting and backstage and technical developments.

His wife said that one thing workers at Sparrow’s Nest pride themselves on is the affordability of their shows: admission is $5 or $10 for a family. The theater group is a nonprofit organization.

Liebfried, 52, has an undergraduate degree in theater from the University of Maine at Farmington and spent the last three years completing a master’s degree in directing at the University of South Dakota. This is the first show he will be directing in Maine since his return.

Both Liebfried and Leeman have theater backgrounds and met playing opposite roles in a production of “Damaged Goods” at Lakewood Theater in Madison. They have both acted and directed at other regional theaters including the Sandy River Players in Farmington and the Aqua City Actors’ Theater in Waterville.

“In any of these community theaters, they are all utilizing ordinary people to do theater, and that’s a wonderful thing. But I think we’re special, because we don’t charge a lot and we make it possible for people to come see shows,” Leeman said.

Sparrow’s Nest started its venture into community theater with two family-oriented shows put on by both children and adults: “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” in December and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in May.

Leeman said both shows did well with audiences, partly because of the low ticket price and because family members of performers would come to see the shows more than once.

Cindy Brown, 53, of Starks, who works on the shows’ technical aspects said that since becoming involved in the theater she has been struck by how much fun people seem to be having putting them on.

“It’s people doing things together. We’ve had whole families act in the plays; and with our new show, we have husband-and-wife teams. They’re doing real things together, not sitting at home in front of the TV,” she said.

And while Leeman and her husband have theater backgrounds, not everyone who participates does. Many are teachers from Leeman’s school. Others are interested members of surrounding communities.

For example, Kathy Clement, 46, of Starks, said she got involved when her son was returning home from a one-year deployment to Afghanistan.

A receptionist at H&R Block in Skowhegan, she said the show was something she signed up for both for herself and her son.

“I knew I needed to give him some space when he came home and not do the over-protective mom thing,” she said. “And I’m having a ball.”

Transforming the church

The West Mills Community Church closed in 2006 because of a combination of high heating costs and a low parishioner population, said Leeman, who has been a member of the parish since 1976. Like many churches around the nation that are facing similar problems, they merged with another church, joining with the United in Christ Presbyterian Church in Starks; but they were left with the question of what to do with the old building.

With the heat turned off and the building closed for the winter, the 100-year-old church developed a mold problem that made it unusable, said Leeman.

“We didn’t know what we were going to do with the building. We thought we couldn’t go back to it because it wasn’t healthy,” she said.

That changed when the Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church from Wilmington, Del. stepped in and said they would pay to have the mold remediated professionally. Nate Phillips, who is a pastor at the Delaware church but grew up in Industry, said that since 2006 he has been coming to the area to lead groups of volunteers in building low-income housing in Anson, Industry, Jay and Starks.

He was struck by the news of the closure of his former parish, where he was part of a youth ministry choir called Sparrow’s Song, and wanted to do something to resurrect the old church.

Phillips, 35, said he saw the dilemma as having a broader significance. According to the national offices of Presbyterian Church U.S.A., based in Louisville, Ky., the number of Presbyterian congregations in the U.S. has declined from 11,178 in 2000 to 10,466 in 2011. Membership has declined from 2.5 million people to about 1.9 million.

“Churches all over the place are having difficult conversations about keeping their doors open. They are asking themselves, ‘What would the community miss if the church was gone?’ Before Sparrow’s Nest, I’m not sure the people in Industry had much of an answer,” Phillips said.

Leeman said that Sparrow’s Nest is its own nonprofit organization, but it still operates under the wing of the church in Starks, and the church provides much of the funding and support for the arts center.

For the last seven years, Phillips said, he has been bringing volunteers to help remodel the church in addition to the housing work. This year he led 68 members of the Delaware congregation, which has about 1,000 members total, to Industry, where they built a deck on the back of Sparrow’s Nest and refinished the basement.

Over the years, they have built a stage and risers for the theater, put in a new floor, painted a mural on the side of the building and set up a kitchen.

Phillips said their work is not done and he hopes to continue bringing volunteers back to Sparrow’s Nest. Too many churches he said, are asking themselves what they are doing wrong instead of what they can do to be a blessing to the community.

“As people we have the tendency to think things are disposable instead of looking for ways to fix them. This church was not easy to fix, but it has emerged as a dream shared by two communities,” he said. “It’s a different place than where I grew up, but the heart is similar.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
[email protected]

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