"Fish & Beauregard" began with a skeletal plot, one that falls into a favored genre of Rebecca Schaffer's: magic realism.
Like novelists in that realm, the former Missoula actor and director's idea could be a painting instead of a play.
A young boy wins a fish at a carnival, but cracks the bowl. To keep his little pet in water, he stays standing underneath a cloud that won't stop raining. Soon, a girl, more impulsive than him, comes to help him out of his conundrum.
Schaffer said magic realism suits theater, where the combination of actors on a stage meshes into a "larger-than-life" quality.
"I love the word," said Schaffer, director of Viscosity Theatre. "I feel like it's a lot of what I do as an artist."
For "Fish," Schaffer and her unconventional theater group relied on an unconventional technique – devisement – in which actors and department leaders all develop a story and script together.
There are many "fantastic scripts" ready to go, Schaffer said, but it's appealing to rely on the creative energies of everyone in their group.
Plus, a locally developed script can reflect the place where it was made, and its audience – a unique feature of a medium that can't reach millions of people, she said.
"When developing with people around you, it has the ability to resonate with the immediate community, which is who it's ultimately for – with our media community."
Viscosity used the devisement technique last in 2013 for "This Illusionment," which was staged in the basement of the Zootown Arts Community Center.
That one was improvised from scratch. For "Fish," Schaffer brought the idea to actor Mikey Wynn and they developed the plot further.
She, Wynn and design director Daniel Scott Morris all worked on the concept, even keeping the script in a Google Doc, from there.
Schaffer and Wynn developed their characters together.
Beauregard, the boy, is nervous and worried, and "likes things to be in a particular order."
In contrast, the young girl, Marzi, is impulsive and just wants to help people, Schaffer said, which is what she does when she encounters him under the Cloud of Perpetual Rain.
Along the way, the script plays with scientific ideas and "turning them upside down" in a way that a child might:
Marzi thinks that ice is only water that's slowed down – she suggests that they find a way to stop the rain and fabricate a new tank out of "water glass."
In case that didn't indicate it already, the all-ages-friendly "Fish" isn't a straight drama.
"It's definitely a comedy in a way that we do comedy," Schaffer said. "Not everything is happy. There is a lot of levity to the script. We like being funny and playing in that child-like world."
Acting coach Kelly Bouma blocked all their movements, helping the actors develop realistic, child-like actions – a sometimes difficult task for adults.
"Children are so genuine and often when we go to playing children, we play at them, or play into the naivete or the silliness of them, when in fact children are very serious about what they're doing, about their work at hand, or their play or what we consider to be play," Schaffer said.
Morris, another founding Viscosity member, led the design process.
They were looking for everyday, found objects they could use and settled on bed sheets as their main set material, with elements like clouds and skies painted upon them.
"They are super cheap and versatile and have a really beautiful quality about them," Schaffer said.
Plus, she noted, they allude to the classic childhood hobby of sheet-and-pillow forts.
And there's Jamie the fish: a humorous-looking finger-puppet Morris made out of brown paper bags, cornstarch and orange paint.
Beyond that, the only set elements are some cardboard, five-gallon buckets and a ladder, plus the costumes designed by Aurora Darling of Whitefish.
"This show, one of the things was doing a two-person show that is designed to tour," Schaffer said. "Everything will fit in a carry-on suitcase except for the ladder."
After the premiere performances in Missoula, Schaffer and Wynn will travel to Whitefish for two shows, and then to the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
Schaffer is now based out of Philadelphia, with stints in Whitefish where she's worked with the Whitefish Theatre Co. and produced shows like the "Crushmas Cabaret."
Before she moved from Missoula, she founded the Viscosity in 2012, along with Morris, writer Josh Wagner and lighting director Diego Burgos.
They and their group, which has since involved numerous others, have produced mostly original works that broach the audience-actor divide and emphasize a visceral response – hence the name.
At last year's Fringe Festival, they staged "Mystery Mark," based on a graphic novel collaboration by Wagner and Missoula-based artist Theo Ellsworth.
That piece had no dialogue, instead relying on oversized papier-mâché heads based on Ellsworth's drawings, a score by local band Cash for Junkers, and deliberate, hypnotic movements from the actors.
"We were really excited to be able to present that show in that way. It was something different, a strictly movement piece and audiences responded to the visuals and the underscoring in a way that we were really pleased with," she said.