Missoula's new, artistically ambitious independent theater company is opening its second full season with an ambitious move: two plays running concurrently.
"Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" and "Gruesome Playground Injuries" are both two-handers, a man and a woman on stage, confronting truths about relationships and human need.
Mason Wagner, the founder of BetweenTheLines, said the two have a conversation of sorts. "Danny," written by John Patrick Shanley and premiered in 1984, takes place on one night in a Bronx bar, where two strangers test the boundaries of human connections on first meeting. Rajiv Joseph's 2012 play "Gruesome" spans 30 years in non-chronological order as two lives intersect during times of emotional and physical trauma.
They both raise questions about love, Wagner said, and perhaps resolve with similar answers, but do so in drastically different ways.
"I don't know what the answer is necessarily, but I'm excited to see what people have to say about how they're related," he said. One of the "Gruesome" actors, Jourdan Nokleby, said the plays ask "how well two people can get to know each other."
"Both of the shows deal with scary emotions," Wagner said. They delve into "intense raw material but people walk away feeling like they're more OK with that in themselves."
Wagner also believes that presenting two plays with overlapping days — there's a few points that you could see both if you wanted — is a way to generate excitement about contemporary theater.
After the opening two, they'll return in March with "In the Snow," a new work by local playwright Kate Morris, and finish in May with "4000 Miles" by Amy Herzog, who who was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2011.
Wagner, a University of Montana theater graduate, started BetweenTheLines in spring 2016 as a way of presenting new plays that he wanted to perform and see himself in Montana.
There's a lineage at work: Recent theater grads often have to create the opportunities for themselves, particularly if they're interested in non-commercial scripts. Previous groups like Wagner's include the Montana Actors' Theatre, a Havre-based company that branched out into Missoula to stage works like Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" at the Crystal Theatre. Later there was Viscosity Theatre, a group that focused more heavily on original work. (Viscosity is now partly based in Whitefish.)
The first BetweenTheLines production was "The Flick," a three-hour marathon about the young workers at a movie theater. Its writer, Annie Baker, is now a MacArthur "Genius" grant, and is noted for her ultra-realistic approach to the awkward dialogue of everyday 20-somethings.
Wagner and company staged "The Flick" in the Roxy, with the conceit that they could use the actual theater as a set.
The three-night run was successful enough that they returned for a fall-to-spring season in 2016-17 with three plays as an in-house company at the Roxy. The stage in the movie theater isn't that large, so the plays were selected with that in mind: scripts that showcase acting and direction and can accommodate minimal sets. All three were excellent: Baker's lost youths in "The Aliens." A love story told through variations based on quantum physics in Nick Payne's "Constellations." Chekhov's "The Seagull" rewritten for contemporary times in Aaron Posner's "Stupid F---ing Bird."
Over the course of the season, they kept extending their runs as demand increased. At "Stupid F---ing Bird," they added multiple extra performances after people were getting turned away at the door.
"We wrapped up the season with a real high note," he said. The play, which calls for a broader variety of settings and technical problems without any increase in budget, tested their company.
"When we were brainstorming our next move, we wanted to up the ante. We wanted to keep the process growing as opposed to settling," he said.
In "Gruesome Playground Injuries," through eight scenes and 30 years, Kayleen (Nokleby) and Doug (Ben Seratt) keep encountering each other during times of tragedy.
"These two characters are the most important people in each other's lives, but they don't know it," Wagner said. "They keep barely missing each other and falling away from each other."
While Doug is prone to external injuries, Kayleen's are internal.
To the show's director, Mike Fink, the playwright is "drawing a parallel that emotional trauma is every bit as powerful and scarring as physical trauma." And despite the prosthetic blood involved, Fink reminded audience-goers that it's a redemptive love story.
The characters' ages range from 8 to almost 40 years old over the course of eight scenes. The script includes costume changes on the set, openly acknowledging the theatricality and humanity of the piece, Fink said. "It's a dangerous and humble act all at the same time."
To help the actors with their characters' arcs, they first took the script apart and worked on it in chronological order. Nokleby went through her diaries to revisit the particular voice she wrote with at different stages of her life.
Fink is stepping into the director's role for the first time. He was scenic designer on the "Stupid F---ing Bird" and "Constellations," and has worked in production and design for the Montana Repertory Theatre for years. (He designed the perfect white house with a crumbling facade for 2016's production of Arthur Miller's family drama "All My Sons.") He's a fan of a holistic European concept of theater design, which can encompass directing. He's also a fan of staged readings and the way they leave much to the audience's imagination. He likes to the think of BetweenTheLines' aesthetic as "distilled," a philosophy that frees them to focus on the essential elements.
To Nokleby, it's a chance to focus on a different type of theater.
"You have to be totally open and vulnerable to each other, not just as the characters, also as the actors. It also makes you emotionally raw," she said.
The relatively recent UM theater graduate said she came up in theater through musicals. She loves both campus and community theater, but the BetweenTheLines scripts are a chance to stretch out. In college, for instance, she was often cast as older female characters out of necessity. Nokleby, who also performed in "Stupid F---ing Bird," savors the chance to play someone whose struggles are more relatable to her. The play also raises important issues for women (rape, self-abuse and suicide) and can start conversations with the audience, she said.
In "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," two loners, Danny (Tyson Gerhardt Hirsh) and Roberta (Sophia Jensen), meet by chance in a Bronx bar and talk over the course of a single night. They're vulnerable and sensitive, "but they have no way to articulate that," said Wagner, who's directing "Danny" himself.
Jensen said it's raw and intense. A New York Times review of the original run compared it to a "prize fight that concludes in a loving embrace."
Jensen played a lead part in "Stupid F---ing Bird," which was her first role in theater ever, not counting as Christmas plays when she was a child in Ashland, Oregon. She was inspired after seeing "Constellations" and wanted to try it herself.
That has something to do with the small size of the Roxy's theater: they're small spaces. If you sit up front, the actors are only feet away. Fink said the close range is an advantage, particularly when it's a full house. That's when the energy becomes charged.
"It was a really different type of theater," Jensen said. "It felt very intimate and very vulnerable," she said. There's less separation between the audience and the material in a beautiful way, she said.