OGUNQUIT — As a theater director, Bradford Kenney is partial to dramatic interludes. But he swears he’s not putting on a show when he pauses to ponder the future of the Ogunquit Playhouse if voters reject a zoning change requested by the playhouse at Tuesday’s townwide vote.

“She’s not going to survive if you don’t fix her,” Kenney said of the white wooden playhouse, which was built in 1937 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. “It was built to be an 8- to 10-week summer stock theater, and that’s not how it operates anymore. What was appropriate for a summer building in the 1930s is not appropriate for today. People have different needs and the business is different.”

If approved, Question 5 on Tuesday’s town meeting ballot will create a new zone for the playhouse, protecting it as a nonprofit theater and allowing Kenney and his team to begin planning for a restoration and renovation of the stately structure and 16 acres of lush grounds.

Voters in Ogunquit will decide Tuesday on a zoning change that would let the Ogunquit Playhouse make improvements including an expansion of its lobby. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

What began as a summer theater in 1933 is now the largest performing arts organization in Maine, according to the Maine Arts Commission, with an annual budget of more than $11.5 million, 130,000 ticket-buyers each year and a season that no longer resembles anything like summer, running May through October.

Kenney, the theater’s executive artistic director, has also improved the quality of the musicals, bringing many new works and regional premieres to Maine and re-establishing Ogunquit as an influential locale in American theater.

But the playhouse is out-of-compliance with current zoning, and it can’t make substantial structural improvements without the zoning change. As the theater has expanded its season and returned Broadway-quality shows to Ogunquit to build on its legacy as a regional theater powerhouse, it has stretched the building beyond capacity, Kenney said.

The playhouse will host a final public meeting on the zoning change Monday at 5 p.m.

Both the Select Board and Planning Board recommended the change unanimously, and it is expected to pass easily Tuesday. But these days anything goes in Ogunquit, which has endured 18 months of divisive local politics with the contested firing of the fire chief, a bitter recall targeting three members of the Select Board and charges that a former Select Board member stalked Planning Board members by sending them anonymous letters.

A tent outside the Ogunquit Playhouse provides space for events that’s lacking inside. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

There’s no organized opposition to the playhouse proposal, but Kenney and supporters of the theater worry the vote might get caught in local drama. There are lots of rumors and talk about what might happen if the playhouse gets what it wants with the zoning change, with fears that range from a Disney-style resort to condos to a cell tower. “We’d love a cell tower,” Kenney said, “but that’s not what we’re planning.”

At this time, there is no plan beyond the concept of improvements across the theater, including a new flyloft that will extend above the current building to house sets, the relocation of a barn where sets are built and a complete upgrade of the theater’s restrooms and amenities for ticket-holders, artists and guests, Kenney said. While the heating and air-conditioning systems have been upgraded, the duct work is old and the building lacks insulation, he said.

Cars pack the parking lot in front of the Ogunquit Playhouse as the audience gathers for a show in 1937. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library

He also would like to create permanent space for events, receptions and parties, so the theater can move beyond temporary tents and restrooms. Offices for the staff would be nice, too, he said. Staff members work in various locations at the theater and nearby in town, and the best office space in the theater itself is the same small room where Bette Davis sometimes sat by an open window to talk to ticket-holders in the garden below.

Under John Lane’s artistic leadership beginning in 1950, the theater became a top summer-stock theater, attracting stars like Davis, Walter Matthau, John Raitt, Lloyd Bridges and Betty White. More recently, lyricist Tim Rice spent a month in Ogunquit in 2017 working on a new musical, “From Here to Eternity,” and the playhouse remains a destination for Tony Award-nominated and winning actors and actresses, as well as stars like Sally Struthers, who appears in “42nd Street” beginning on June 19.

If the vote passes, any changes the theater will propose will involve saving and restoring the historic structure, Kenney said. “We got it on the historic register. We don’t want to rip it down. We want to preserve and carefully enhance,” he said. “Our mission statement is clear – to preserve this historic building, but you have to be able to use it.”

Marcia Beal Brazer, a longtime resident and 54-year playhouse season-ticket holder, is confident her neighbors will support the zoning change. But after everything she’s seen and heard in town politics these last two years, she worries that voters might vote “no” based on a general lack of trust involving anything to do with Ogunquit.

Jacob Priddy, conductor for the “Jersey Boys” production, grabs music from the orchestra area backstage at the Ogunquit Playhouse on Friday. The orchestra pit can’t be used without a complete renovation, so the musicians play behind the stage. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Too bad our town wasn’t run smoothly and with integrity like the Ogunquit Playhouse,” said Brazer, who has three “Yes on Five” signs on her Ogunquit properties. “I have all the faith in Brad Kenney and his team.”

Select Board Chair Charles Waite III thinks the vote will pass, too. As board chairman, he was concerned about adopting a zoning change while the town continued a larger discussion about a comprehensive plan. He was swayed by the preparation of Kenney during public meetings and his pledge to involve the town and residents if the vote passes.

A barn on the Ogunquit Playhouse property was once used to build sets.The theater would like to move the barn and use it as an event space. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Those folks are tenacious and very dedicated and passionate,” Waite said of Kenney and his team. “They are very committed to working hand in hand with the town to make sure as we move forward we are being transparent and inclusive. I like how Brad kept saying at all the meetings – ‘your playhouse’ and ‘the town’s playhouse.’ When people feel part of a project and part of the decision-making process, they will support it more.”

Town Manager Patricia A. Finnigan wouldn’t predict the outcome of the vote, but said she thinks turnout will be heavy among the town’s 1,200 or so voters. Town meeting ballot measures usually draw between 50 percent to 60 percent of voters, she said.

“I would say this question is one that people will want to come out and vote for,” she said. “There’s been a lot of information out there. People are interested.”

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. on June 12, 2019, to correct that stalking charges were leveled against a former Select Board member.

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