Norman Kehling spent most of his adult life in prison, some of that in solitary confinement. Toward the latter part of his sentence for arson, however, he realized he needed to make some changes if he was going to make it after his release. Now, he helps others with reentry. His story is the subject of a one-man play called “For the Next Guy,” that premieres at the Strand Theatre in Rockland this week. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Deep into his lengthy sentence, Norman Kehling confronted a stark reality: He’d have to live outside prison one day.

“I was playing around with drugs and getting in fights and getting in trouble,” he explained. “I just didn’t have any clue.”

By the time he met Larraine Brown, Kehling already had served more than two decades at Maine State Prison for arson, including many years in solitary confinement, but he had only recently started thinking seriously about atoning for his past.

Brown was teaching writing and theater as part of a prisoner reentry program, and Kehling was an inmate who took an interest right away. In him, Brown said she saw someone who hadn’t been given much of a chance in life, even before he was incarcerated.

“I hear a lot of stories, but I was just so struck by his,” she said.

With Kehling’s blessing, she started writing down details of what he shared during those theater classes with the hope that they might turn into a play.


That play, “For the Next Guy,” premieres this week at the Strand Theatre in Rockland. It also will be shown via livestream at the prison in Warren.

Actor David Troup rehearses the one-man play “For the Next Guy” in the basement of a church in Rockland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The one-person show, starring veteran local actor David Troup as Kehling (he also plays supporting roles), doesn’t sugarcoat any of the subject’s life experiences. Before he set fire in a drunken rage to the Biddeford apartment he shared with his wife and other tenants – an act that would earn him the maximum sentence allowed by law – Kehling had lived in and out of foster homes nearly all his childhood, enduring abuse along the way.

Troup said he was immediately drawn to Kehling’s story.

“It fit with how I wanted to spend my time,” said Troup, who was a longtime member of Camden-based Everyman Repertory Theatre before stepping down recently. “The last few productions I did with Everyman, we had a notion to do something bigger and take on shows that support social issues. I’m fully on board with theater that brings important issues to the forefront.”

The heavy subject matter (combined with not having any co-stars to share the stage) has been daunting for Troup.

“You can’t depend on anyone else to save you,” he said. “So, it’s a little scary. But at the same time, this is really a play that’s rooted in the real beginning of theater. At the very beginning, it was just a story. No lights, no set, no director. You went up there and told a story. That’s essentially what this is.”


Kehling, now 64 and four years released from prison, spends much of his time helping other inmates who are soon to be released. This year, he launched a free newsletter called Helping Incarcerated Individuals Transition. Proceeds from the production of “For the Next Guy” will support the newsletter.

Larraine Brown reads from a script while Norman Kehling looks on during a rehearsal “For the Next Guy.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Kehling, who lives in Swanville near Belfast, said it’s been a little strange watching someone else bring his story to life during rehearsals.

“It brings up a lot of feelings for sure,” he said. “But for me, this is part of giving back to the world with my story, you know. That’s how we got to the title. This isn’t for me. It’s all about the next guy.”


Kehling said he never intended to hurt anyone the night of Nov. 3, 1989.

According to court documents, he began the evening at a bar in Biddeford, celebrating a promotion at the local wastewater treatment plant where he worked.


But the night followed a familiar pattern for Kehling in those days. Heavy drinking, followed by increasingly erratic behavior.

He was forced to leave the bar after fighting with other patrons. But he stayed outside and continued to shout threats, which eventually led to his arrest.

At the police station in Biddeford, Kehling threatened to harm his arresting officers and blow up the police station.

Police let him go after he made bail, though, and Kehling went to his brother’s apartment, where he called his wife and threatened her and his mother-in-law.

He later went to the apartment he and his wife shared, along with 10 other tenants. Witnesses heard him threatening her once more, saying, “I’m going to burn you out.”

In the early morning hours, Kehling set fire to the apartment and left hurriedly – without warning anyone inside. The building was destroyed, but the occupants managed to get out safely, including his wife, who had left before the fire was set.


Kehling was arrested and then indicted by a grand jury on a charge of arson, a Class A felony. The trial lasted four days, after which a jury needed only an hour to find him guilty. The judge ordered a psychological evaluation and presentence report, which recommended the maximum sentence, 40 years.

He was sent to Maine State Prison in the summer of 1990.

“I was a handful, I was out of control,” Kehling said. “I didn’t think I was that type of person, but I was. I was violent. I had rage.”

It took a long time for him to reconcile that, and to connect that anger with his difficult childhood.

Brown said she could sense from her earliest conversations with Kehling how much his upbringing shaped his life.

“His childhood was filled with extreme poverty and violence, and I was struck by the thought, ‘What would I have done in his shoes?’” she said. “There was an inevitability about where he would end up.”


Kehling’s mother, whose inability to care for him led to a series of foster homes, once told him, “I prepared you well for prison son. You’ll do well there.”

For the first several years in prison, Kehling did not do well.

The same anger that fueled him on the outside hadn’t gone away, and his behavior led to many years of solitary confinement.

Kehling said he doesn’t know exactly when things clicked for him, or why, but he learned to let go of his anger. He had only a seventh-grade education when he entered prison but eventually earned a bachelor’s degree. Any time there was a chance to learn a new skill, he jumped.

Kehling was released from incarceration on March 27, 2018, after serving 28 years of his 40-year sentence.



For a long time, Kehling didn’t remember the night of the fire. Now a day doesn’t go by that he doesn’t think of it and the pain he caused others.

“I thank God no one got hurt,” he said. “I feel terrible every day.”

But Kehling knows he can’t undo the past, so he tries to do good.

That’s one of the things that drew Brown to him.

“I found Norman’s story inspiring, and I was always interested in why people decide they are going to change,” she said.

Brown has been involved in theater in Maine and New York for decades. She sensed Kehling’s story would make a compelling play and began writing everything down.


“I’m a little afraid,” she said. “We hope it’s funny and inspiring and leaves people elevated, but it’s a hard sell. I worry that it’s just too grim for people.”

Finding the right actor to portray Kehling would determine her play’s success, and Brown said she couldn’t have done better than Troup.

“David has a tremendous reputation. The stars aligned,” she said.

Kehling also said he’s been struck by Troup’s commitment.

“I think he’s amazing,” Kehling said. “He looks so much like I did. And he’s critical about the way he does his work. He wants it to be great.”

Troup, here rehearsing “For the Next Guy,” says he’s encouraging people come see him perform so they hear Kehling’s story. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Troup said he’s played real-life characters in the past, but rarely ones who are alive and actively involved in the production. In the past, Troup said he’s always felt slightly uncomfortable asking people to come see a show.


“For this one, I really want them to,” he said. “Not for me, but to see Norman’s story.”

It’s a story of how a childhood filled with trauma led to substance abuse and crimes and eventually prison. It’s a story about how someone who spent most of his life incarcerated still has something to give. It’s a story of redemption.

Most people who commit crimes don’t stay in prison forever.

“They get out and they become us,” Brown said. “And then it becomes, how do we learn to live together and embrace each other.”

She hopes the play promotes discussion of two systems Kehling was trapped in most of his life: foster care and prison.

“I hope it helps to positively change those systems,” she said. “I hope it develops a wild, unpredictable life and long muscular legs and travels extensively around the country.”

Kehling said he’s nervous to see how “For the Next Guy” will be received, but it won’t change his mission. He lost a lot of his life to prison and doesn’t plan on wasting any more.

“I’m not mad at the system,” he said. “I think my sentence was long, but I can’t do anything about that now. I think I paid for what I did. I think that makes me right for this world and in God’s eyes. I only want to do the right thing now. That’s all I can do.”

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