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New Surry Theater worked over two years with Jonathan Ellsworth, a Brooklin farmer and barn builder, to bring his play, Stream Crossings, to the stage. Above, from left, Nolan Ellsworth and Tony Rolfe rehearse a scene at Blue Hill Town Hall. Opening night is February 8.
At home on the farm: Jonathan Ellsworth at Carding Brook Farm in Brooklin. His play, Stream Crossings, will be performed February 8 to 10 at New Surry Theatre.
by Anne Berleant
Jonathan Ellsworth is a builder of timber-frame barns and a farmer—and now, a playwright, too.
He began Stream Crossings, to be performed by the New Surry Theatre on February 8 to 10, after attending a logging class in 1998. As the only horse operator in a class of single-skid loggers, Ellsworth found himself siding with the EPA employee’s perspective of minimizing impact on the forest.
But the young EPA staffer was “brutally condescending,” said Ellsworth in a recent interview. “You could eat the tension.”
Ellsworth wrote a scene based on that experience of feeling part of two worlds, and then “stuck it in a drawer.”
After becoming involved with the local theater company as a set builder, Ellsworth began thinking of his story again in 2010, after seeing NST produce a play written by a Bucksport resident. “That blew me away,” he said.
He showed his scene to NST founder and director Bill Raiten.
“He called up that night: ‘Did you write this? Are you sure?’” Ellsworth said.
From there, that single scene grew, page by page, into a full-length piece. A playwriting class with Raiten was integral to the process.
“It took a long time for this to evolve,” said Raiten, who described his teaching method as asking students, “What do you want people to feel? What do you want to share?”
“The feelings of the family [in Stream Crossings] were so evident and I felt it was important to share them…I knew it would be important to the audience, too,” said Raiten.
At the heart of Stream Crossings is what Ellsworth knows best: Mainers and working in the woods.
“His love of the state, his love of the people, comes through in the play,” said Raiten.
The play’s characters revolve around Dick, a 68-year-old woodcutter and Vietnam veteran, whose closest companion is the ghost of Leon, his friend who died in the war. Dick’s woodcutter son, his daughter and her state forester husband, his wife Mary, his son’s boss and an EPA inspector round out the characters. Ellsworth’s son Nolan, who has acted with NST since 2006, plays the role of Leon.
“I really feel a lot of my play is the feeling there’s a part of Maine slipping away,” said Ellsworth. “I tried to weave in what I remember from older Maine.”
“The main character really struggles,” Ellsworth added. “It’s a heavy play.”
Raiten said the ending has been evolving up to the last rehearsals.
“The feelings [in Stream Crossings] are universal—of friends you’ve lost in the war, of not giving enough love to your children because you were so busy earning a living…It’s going to be a very rewarding play for the audience,” said Raiten. “They’re going to leave feeling very good about what has happened with this family…There is hope at the end.”
Ellsworth said he was completely naïve about what it takes to bring a script to the stage. “It was 10 times more work than expected,” he said.
And while he has a “couple ideas” for new plays, “they’re in the drawer,” Ellsworth said. “They may stay there.”
Ellsworth was raised on a dairy farm in Farmington and operates Carding Brook Farm in Brooklin with his wife, Jennifer Schroth. He spoke with enthusiasm about a new hoop house on the farm that will provide produce for on-site sales.
“I’m thrilled I did it,” he said of writing Stream Crossings. “I feel lucky this is happening.
“[But] it’s like someone tossing a football around the backyard and thinking they’re a football player. I’m really a farmer who cuts wood in the winter.”