As Rick Ash retired from Camden Hills Regional High School earlier this summer after 21 years, he knew he was leaving the position of technical theater director in good hands, with his well-qualified replacement Kailey Smith.

While Ash sees his role at Camden Hills as part of a team of key staff and many students, he has been the man behind a lot of the magic seen on the stage of the Strom Auditorium these past two decades.

Over his 40-year teaching career, he has worn many hats: technical theater director and teacher, advisor to the Strom Theater Tech Club, Chair of the Maine Drama Council, coordinator of the annual Maine Drama Festival for more than 10 years and board member of the Maine Alliance For Arts Education.

Ash began his teaching career in Maine in 1981 at Medomak Valley High School, and in 2000 joined the staff at Camden Hills. He started as an English teacher at Medomak, but soon gravitated towards teaching filmmaking and technical theater, because he saw this was what students wanted to do.

In his first few years directing at Medomak, he staged a production of Peter Pan with full theatrical rigging and flying students. Decades later, staff there were still talking about that show when they did the musical again. In 19 years, he directed probably a 100 shows and had a great time there.

“To me, it’s about having fun. I think the good shows just come about when you have fun,” he said.

A teacher’s day begins early in the morning. For Ash, that meant waking up at 5 a.m. He lives close to Camden Hills and while working in Waldoboro, had applied to the Camden-Rockport school district once or twice.

When he landed the technical theater director position at the newly built Camden Hills high school, the Strom Auditorium was not quite finished.

His proximity to the school turned out to be very helpful. “I didn’t know much about the workings of a place like the Strom. Luckily I lived only two miles away, so I was able to practically live here,” he said.

The 826-seat auditorium was built and equipped through private donations, organized through the fundraising group Friends of the CSD.  Since 2014, the Friends, with alumni support, invested more than $100,000 to purchase a new light board, replace the auditorium sound system and convert most of the stage lighting to LED technology. The Strom is the primary stage for Camden Hills musicals and theatrical productions.

Looking back, Ash said, “I have been so lucky over the years to have been able to work with such creative students and teachers. The support we were given by the community made it so rewarding. I will miss it all.”

When Ash talks about his time in technical theater at Camden Hills, he rarely just talks about himself. Mostly he uses the word “we,” by which he means himself and Tom Heath, the school’s technology systems coordinator. The two have shared the tech position for many years, where Ash handled most of the sets and Heath most of the lighting and sound.

The tech crew for a big production can involve as many as 30 students. With guidance from Ash and Heath, students led all aspects of stagecraft, from set design and construction, scene painting and lighting design, to sound and backstage operations.  The tech crew also worked with the student actors, overseeing their wireless mics, helping with makeup and costumes, and on the rare occasion, getting them into a flying harness.

“I’ve always believed – there’s the equipment – we’re the facilitators — and our job is to help you find the equipment you’d like to play around with and learn how to do it,” Ash said.

Certain skills, like running the light board, are hard to teach in class, because only one person can run the board at a time, he explained. Everyone who has learned it, has learned on their own or with another student who is good at it teaching them, he said.

Throughout the year, students can take tech classes, join the tech club and volunteer as crew for plays and the musical.

Ash and Heath made it easy for students to get involved. “We never made it [tech club] so you have to come everyday, because there are so many kids doing so many activities. If you say they have to be there every time you’ll never get a crew,” he said.

A big thing, he said, is nobody who wants to try tech club gets turned away and students don’t have to know anything about tech to join. That doesn’t mean the work won’t be complicated though. Ash has seen “the more complicated it is, the more kids want to be involved.”

Not knowing something complicated has never stopped Ash, or Heath. The two have stories about figuring out how to do some of the big and impressive stage effects they and students have created.

“All the shows are a big deal. Some are bigger than others, and they are usually the musicals,” Ash said.

He had seen Les Miserables on Broadway multiple times, and taken Medomak Valley students to the show. When Choral Director Kim Murphy, who has for many years directed the fall musicals, chose Les Mis, his first thought was, “we have to build a turntable.”

Ash told the story of how it took an entire summer to create a workable turntable, which is a round, revolving stage. A community member designed and engineered it, and a friend and local builder helped construct a turntable that was 32-feet across. When the problem of how to turn it was still unresolved just weeks before the show, Ash called the owners of Rockport Steel and and Rockport Marine, who he knew. Taylor Allen of Rockport Marine donated a windlass, a powerful piece of marine equipment used to pull up anchors. Rockport Steel fastened the windlass to a tire and got the thing to turn, Ash said. There were still a few speed bumps to be ironed out before the performance, and students had to learn how to keep their balance when it started up.  A tech student ran the turntable. “It was pretty amazing,” Ash recalls.

When Murphy decided to stage Phantom of the Opera, for technical theater, it meant, “you’ve got to have the chandelier, you have to have the boat,” Ash said.  The chandelier was designed by a student, weighed somewhere been 70 and 90 pounds, and was made from a steel structure of three rings, beads curtains and LED lights, Ash and Heath recalled. Heath programmed the lights “to do all the flashing.” Tom Kiley of Rockport Marine helped them with the rigging of the chandelier, which as anyone who has seen the show knows, drops dramatically from the ceiling to the stage.

The release of the chandelier was an exciting feat, accomplished by a student running the length of a catwalk. Most of the chandelier’s weight was transferred to the rigging, so the student was only dealing with 20 pounds. The rigging also controlled the lowering of the chandelier by a certain number of feet for each four feet the student ran on the catwalk, Heath said.

Tech also transformed the Strom into an opera house, with an ornate proscenium and loge boxes, according to a story in Villagesoup. There was an elephant made for just one scene that was so large it took up all of the Black Box theater backstage, and there were costume changes for each of three “operas” within the show.

The boat is another story Ash tells, of “the show must go on,” genre. There is a famous candlelit scene where the Phantom and Christine are travelling in a small boat across an underground lake in the cavernous darkness beneath the Opera House. On the stage of the Strom, the boat was meant to be motorized, and remote controlled. A class at Midcoast School of Technology working on small engines assisted, Ash said. Camden Hills bought the motor, and built a boat with a false bottom in it. It took a long time to get the motor ready, and when they tried it out on stage, it worked fine, he said.

But at rehearsal, the motor didn’t work. “We’d do work on it, and again at rehearsal it didn’t work,” he said.

Then it was the week before the show. “We ripped the motor out and told Christine her feet were going to be the control of the boat. The role of Christine was double cast, and both students were told they had to sing and move their feet.”

This news was delivered to the two students singing a very demanding role “pretty close to dress rehearsal,” Ash remembers. “Fortunately, the stage was supposed to be covered with fog so you wouldn’t see her feet.”

Spring plays and One-Acts (Maine Drama Festival) are also a big deal for student actors and tech crews. The One Act Festival, which involves as many as 2,000 students in high schools throughout Maine, and is in its 89th year, is where Ash and Heath met Kailey Smith. In recent years she has served as President of the Maine Drama Council, which oversees the festival.

Though Smith had to go through the regular application and competitive hiring process to secure the job, Ash and Heath say they have been working on convincing her to consider coming to Camden Hills for seven years.

“The message was, when Rick retires, you’ll come take his job,” Heath said smiling. He and Ash could not be happier that Smith has the technical theater director position, with Heath acting as the bridge to continuity.

Smith graduated from Emerson College in 2011 with a degree in theatre education and an emphasis in direction and production. Since then, she has worked at Lawrence High School in Fairfield teaching classes in theatre, stagecraft, acting, production design, children’s theatre, and theatre for social change. She has been director and technical director of the Lawrence Theatre Company and coach for the speech and tennis teams.

When she started at Fairfield, she had a total of 10 actors and tech students, and encouraged students put on a recruitment effort. Three years later, she staged the musical Once Upon a Mattress with 45 students in the cast.

Smith was also facility manager of the Williamson Performing Arts Center, which she said is similar in size and shape to the Strom. Coming to Camden Hills gives Smith more resources to work with, such as the modern technical systems in the Strom, and full-time staff other than herself who run the auditorium and stage productions.

Smith describes herself as “very student centered. My goal is to communicate with the students — let them teach me things, show me how to do things, figure out what they want to do moving forward — and see what happens.”

During an interview, accompanied by Ash and Heath, Smith mentioned she has written a proposal for theater for social change and another for children’s theater. This started Ash and Heath reminiscing about shows Camden Hills has done for children, including Horton Hears a Who and Charlotte’s Web, and got all three talking about how much fun it is.

While Ash’s retirement at the end of the 2020-21 academic year was planned, no one could have anticipated there would be no final fall musical on the stage of the Strom that year.

It may be fitting however, that his last musical on that stage was Mary Poppins in Fall 2019. For Ash, it was a big deal because of the flying. It also represented everything a big Camden Hills musical can be, and more, with an extravaganza of technical effects. Years from now, people will still be talking about the painted statues that came to life, magical dishes that broke and went back together again, the chimney sweep’s high energy tap dance on the London rooftop set, and how everyone in the audience broke into applause each time Mary and Bert floated above the stage.

What’s next for Ash is more travel and more time in New Zealand where his wife is from, sleeping later than 5 a.m. and finally getting to see Hamilton. He mentioned he did not know what is in store at Camden Hills in the next school year, but he is guessing it will be exciting.

From Left, Rick Ash, who has retired as Camden Hills Regional High School technical theater director, Kailey Smith who has been hired for the position, and Tom Heath, Camden Hills technology coordinator, who will continue on in his role with theatrical productions as the high school.