Taxing Maine: David Greenham

by Brita Zitin
David Greenham (top, middle) and Dennis Price (middle, bottom) in action as they present Taxing Maine at the McArthur Public Library in Biddeford.
photos: diane hudson

WHEN you open the program for Taxing Maine and see pie charts and a glossary, you may suspect that this is no ordinary play. Less than five minutes into the performance, your suspicions will be confirmed as the actors inform you that “after the show, we’re going to ask what you think about taxes and the common good.”

Wait: don’t we go to the theater to sit back and watch while the actors do the work? Don’t we discuss plays (if we discuss them at all) in the privacy of our homes?

Not if the theater is the Theater of Ideas; not if the play is Taxing Maine. David Greenham, the Director of the Theater at Monmouth, has worked with the Maine Humanities Council on two previous Theater of Ideas projects, exploring issues of importance to Maine in a short play followed by a discussion. The first, in the late 1980s, addressed out-migration through the character of a returning Civil War veteran; the second, in 2003, centered on environmental concerns for the Androscoggin River.

Knowing that a discussion will follow a performance causes audience members to shift in their seats, sitting up a bit straighter and glancing at their neighbors. You can almost hear their minds opening. In 30 years of engaging the people of Maine in the power and pleasure of ideas, the Maine Humanities Council has come to recognize that shift. It heralds the approach of a thoughtful, honest conversation. In this anniversary year, the Council sought to encourage that kind of conversation about a public policy issue in communities across the state, and David’s Theater of Ideas seemed an ideal vehicle.

David does not claim to be an expert on taxes, but after the extensive research he completed while writing Taxing Maine, he can certainly pass for one. David spent hours in the state archives, poring over legislative transcripts from income tax debates and circuitous explications of the sales tax system, and more time interviewing legislators (on both sides of the aisle) and historians. And the arduous process is not complete: he is committed to keeping the play current by following tax-related events throughout the summer and fall. Thrilled to be working on a long-running show that will be continually refreshed, he and Dennis Price, the Theater at Monmouth actor who also appears in the show, discuss breaking tax news with something approaching glee.

The actors’ passion for their unusual subject shows through in Taxing Maine. The civic leaders they portray during the performance are a motley bunch: blustering, zealous, alternately jolly and gloomy. Their speeches—drawn verbatim from primary sources—are pure drama. “Taxation to the body politic is like blood to the human body,” proclaims Obediah Gardner at a Grange Convention in 1908. But when Dennis and David bring them to life on the stage, it’s hard to ridicule these characters, or blame them for any flaws in the current system. They were earnest and informed (or as David puts it, “they weren’t any dumber than we are”), and they agonized over every decision they made. Taxing Maine therefore reveals how little has changed in nearly two hundred years of tax debate. Perhaps the biggest difference is that in previous centuries, the average citizen was much more likely to enter into the fray. Taxing Maine invites us back in.