Originally published in The Weekly Packet, November 9, 2017
NST artistic director Bill Raiten hands over reins but legacy continues
Bill Raiten enjoys a late summer morning in his front yard with his dog Pickle after stepping down as New Surry Theatre’s artistic director.
by Anne Berleant
Every performance eventually comes to an end, whether on or off the stage. For Bill Raiten, founder and artistic director of New Surry Theatre and Performing Arts School since 1972, that moment came last August, shortly after the last performance of Fiddler on the Roof, when he stepped down as artistic director finishing with the same play he opened the theater with 45 years ago.
The theater held a different kind of performance, a retirement celebration for Raiten, on August 20 at the new South Street home of the Bagaduce Music Lending Library. There, about three dozen friends, board members and current and former theater members spoke of Raiten’s vision, leadership, spirit and legacy.
“It was a roller coaster,” said actor and director Dindy Royster, who joined NST in 1979. At the time, “Bill was doing Carousel with George Stevens [Academy] kids. Just to watch the beginning of their learning a part, to capturing what it was, and how he got them there, was absolutely fascinating.”
Producing Director Johanna Blackman agreed. “He is just unbelievable at drawing out people’s natural talent and teaching people to trust those talents.”
Raiten plans to continue to teach directing, acting and playwriting classes and administer the performing arts school.
“I’m so happy they’re letting me still be involved,” he said from his Blue Hill farm, which he runs with Elena Bourakovsky, his wife and stage makeup maestro and wardrobe mistress for NST.
He will also be “another pair of eyes” on the four Raiten-trained directors of the Artistic Direction Committee that has replaced him—Rebecca Poole, Blackman, Shari John and Royster. “I’ll come to a couple rehearsals, whisper in their ears, give notes to the actors,” he said.
Blackman said she is inspired, if a little scared, to follow Raiten as an artistic and producing director.
“There’s so much to Bill’s legacy but the thing that feels unique to me is his ability and commitment to engage with absolutely everyone in the community, regardless of their age, their background or [their] level of experience, and get them involved.”
Rubbing famous elbows in Brooklyn
Raiten grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His mother wanted him to be a doctor, he wanted to be on stage. He met renowned acting teacher Lee Strasberg’s daughter on a blind date and, as teenagers, they began to date. She attended the New York City performing arts school that his parents wouldn’t let him audition for, but Strasberg helped him find an acting teacher.
“This was when I was 16,” Raiten said. “I got lessons for one dollar a lesson. I’d work after school from one to five, then I’d tell my mother I was going to a friend’s house to study, and I’d go to acting classes.”
When his girlfriend won a role in a New York City production, Raiten found himself at parties with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Richard Burton, Helen Hayes. “I’d say to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”
His mother, “when she stopped wanting me to be a doctor, wanted me to be a star, famous,” Raiten recalled. “I told her I knew famous people and they were not as happy as I wanted to become.”
Training actors for the stage
For over four decades, Raiten has been teaching actors, playwrights and directors how to find the truth inside them. Many who studied under Raiten still keep in touch.
“I get letters from California, Denver, Oregon, actors who are now in companies or no longer in theater,” he said. One former Blue Hill student “wrote me this beautiful email, how I changed his life,” Raiten said. Another came from Boston specifically for NST classes. “He [started] studying with me when he was 40. I said, ‘Forget it, don’t do it.’ Now, the man writes plays and performs them all over the United States.”
Then there’s the young woman enrolled in a program for at-risk youth in the 1990s, who stopped him four years ago while he was pumping gas. “‘I’m getting married and you have to come!’” Raiten said she told him. And so, he and Bourakovsky, did.
“He has such charisma, it’s hard to even attempt to replace him in that respect,” Royster said. “It’s just a quality of joy and hard work and everybody being together as a cohesive group to produce something that’s wonderful.”
Outside of NST, Raiten and Bourakovsky create something completely different: Russian sauerkraut and pickled beets, and kimchi, from a Bourakovsky family recipe, and they grow and sell produce from their Backstage Farm, fulfilling Raiten’s back-to-the-land dream that brought him to the Peninsula decades ago.
He pauses, his dog Pickle at his feet, and looks out over his yard and farmland, as his wife carries out produce for market.
“I’m lucky,” Raiten said. “I have been as happy as I wanted. For 45 years I’ve been doing what I love to do, with a wife who shares it [all].”