What Is Deertrees Theatre?

deertrees camp

Students who attended Emerson College in the 1960s may recall a summer program at Deertrees, Emerson’s Center for the Performing Arts. From June to August, students could retreat to the 80-acre site in Harrison, Maine, for a seven- to eight-week intensive study program to earn credits toward a theater degree. Course topics included acting, directing, stagecraft, and design. Students, including future award-winning actress Andrea Martin ’69, and faculty performed three plays per season, each of which ran for two weeks. There were other events that occasionally took place at the Harrison, Maine, location—such as a 1966 Alumni Weekend event—however, the main use was always student instruction.

The Deertrees Theatre was built in 1935 for Enrica Clay Dillon, a popular opera performer, opera director, and voice coach. Dillon was known for teaching students in her own home until her classes became large enough that she commissioned the building of the 350-seat Deertrees Theatre, which opened in 1936. Here she would bring her students each summer to teach them her craft, as well as enjoy the shows performed at the theater.

deertrees bldg exterior

After her death in 1946, the theater changed hands many times before coming to rest with Emerson College. In 1965, Aya Sholley, the producer and owner of Deertrees at the time, and an Emerson College alumna, presented the College with the deed to Deertrees Theatre, along with a grant to fund the first year’s operation. The theater had been intermittently empty for several years and required extensive repairs. In fact, there was a 40-minute power failure during the 1966 intermission of Finian’s Rainbow! The College also purchased a neighboring camp (formerly Camp Ha-Wa-Ya) to house students in the cabins and provide additional space for recreation.

Emerson did not operate the Deertrees program for long. In 1969, it was sold to Emerson College alumnus David Maturi, who only managed to keep the theater for five years. The theater is still in operation today as a nonprofit organization and is currently celebrating its 80th season.

Rosalie Gartner (Archives)