Juli Brooks Settlemire, at top, is shown with her fellow performers in the 2018 production in Waterville of “God of Carnage.” With her are Uri Lessing, at center, Dana Bushee, right, and Erik Hyatt. Photo courtesy of Dana Bushee

As the curtain lowers on Juli Brooks Settlemire’s life, her friends work to ensure her legacy continues.

A devoted wife, actor, director and friend to many in the theater world in central Maine and beyond, Juli, 53, is leaving with dignity and purpose.

She is advocating for a new home for the Aqua City Actors Theatre, formerly housed in The Center in downtown Waterville.

Referred to as a “black box theater” because it was a small, simple performance space with black walls, ACAT was where many aspiring actors and directors got their start and learned the craft from the ground up. ACAT lost its space when The Center was torn down to make way for the new Paul J. Schupf Art Center.

ACAT not only served as a training ground for those aspiring to work on larger stages such as the Waterville Opera House, it also was more appropriate for smaller, intimate plays that wouldn’t work on a large stage.

Before breast cancer changed her world, Juli performed in shows around Maine. She serves on the ACAT board of directors and until late January was assistant director with Director Debra Susi on “The Play That Goes Wrong,” to be performed later this month at the opera house.


I had planned to interview Juli this week at her home in China where she receives hospice care, but she tires easily and preferred to send me a note. In it, she emphasized the need for black box theaters, which is where thespians learn the skills necessary to progress to the larger stage.

“Each individual needs guidance and support in their areas of interest,” she wrote. “I know that supporting a smaller test kitchen in the Waterville area will only benefit the economic revitalization of local artisans and give our actors, directors and technicians important options to share their gifts within community.”

Juli has been spending valuable time with her husband, Todd, and is enveloped in the love of her close theater friends, including Susi, Doree Austin, Dana Bushee and Erik Hyatt. She wrote her obituary and is checking items off her list of things to accomplish, they said. An affordable space for ACAT, preferably in downtown Waterville, is high on her wish list. A landlord would likely have to be someone who understands the importance of theater to a community and is willing to rent space at a modest rate, according to Juli’s friends.

Juli Brooks Settlemire, left, is shown a few years ago with friend, actor and director Doree Austin. Photo courtesy of Doree Austin

Susi said small theaters such as ACAT are important to a creative economy. Having directed many shows over 20 years at the opera house, Susi serves on the board of directors for Waterville Creates, is the department head for the visual and performing arts at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, is a 39-year theater teacher and was named 2022 Somerset County Teacher of the Year. She also spent a lot of time in Chicago where small “storefront theaters” similar to ACAT serve as training grounds for larger theaters, bolstering both.

“I understand full well the symbiotic relationship of the two,” she said.

Austin, who serves on the ACAT board and has worked in theater 51 years, recalled that when ACAT was started by Bill Haley some 25 years ago, a variety of directors used it, including J.P. Devine and Rick Foster. Ticket prices could be kept at reasonable prices, $10 to $12, and it was a place where people learned theater skills in small productions. Austin, who accompanied Juli to chemo treatments through her illness, shares her dream of finding a place for ACAT.


“If there’s something out there, we’d love to look at it,” Austin said, adding that anyone willing to help may email her at iamdoree@aol.com.

Bushee recalled being new to community theater in central Maine several years ago when it was hard to break onto big stages like the opera house where roles were built for seasoned actors with long resumes. She started at ACAT where actors and directors like Juli were supportive and taught her invaluable skills.

“Juli’s passion for ACAT was loud and proud,” Bushee said. “She was a lifelong learner. When she wasn’t acting and directing, she was volunteering backstage or talking about ACAT and other spaces where we could continue to build the craft. And Juli wanted everyone to succeed in theater, so having ACAT was really important to her mission to give everyone a space to perform and learn.” 

Bushee organized an effort for people to bring meals and flowers to Juli during her illness. She also helped raise more than $1,000 through T-shirt sales to boost the ACAT effort.

“I’ll continue to fundraise and do this work for Juli and ACAT because that’s what she would do for all of us,” Bushee said. “I’ve never met a woman who has touched so many people.”

Hyatt recalled meeting Juli in theater many years ago at University of Maine in Orono, and then taking a 25-year break from acting. In 2017, she invited him to audition for ACAT.

“Six years later, my life is still changed by her and theater for the better,” he said. “The therapy of art and theater cannot be overstated, and ACAT was perfect for getting started or restarted on a wonderful journey.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 34 years. Her columns appear here weekly. She is the author of the book, “Comfort is an Old Barn,” a collection of her curated columns, published in 2023 by Islandport Press. She may be reached at acalder@centralmaine.com. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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