Michael Legg said he and his colleagues at the Actors Theatre of Louisville have a lot of nicknames for the nonprofit, a flagship regional theater in Kentucky.
They call it a "teaching hospital for actors," "a boot camp," and "a finishing school." For the past 11 years, he's been the director of its professional training company, where they prepare postgraduates for careers in theater and produce a season of contemporary plays.
He has "a love and respect of theaters that are educational institutions," he said on Thursday during a community forum at the University of Montana.
Legg has applied to be artistic director of the Montana Repertory Theatre, a professional theater in residence with UM's School of Theatre and Dance, that also has a dual mission. It produces a national tour with professional and student actors, an in-state educational tour, a locally held playwrights gathering called the Colony and local productions of contemporary works. The director will also be a tenure-track associate professor. The current director, Greg Johnson, is retiring at the end of the semester after nearly 30 years.
Legg said the relationship between the Rep and the school "has to be one that is close and tight and symbiotic."
Many of his answers involved reaching out to the community to learn what its priorities are and what stories it wants to see on stage. He's a newcomer, having visited Montana once with his husband. He recalled them both thinking, "We need to figure out a way to live here."
"I think it would be my responsibility to come in first as a stranger to this community to say, 'Tell me. Tell me what you love about it. Tell me why you work here. Tell me what your stories are. Tell me what you think your relationship to this university and to this theater can be, and how can I help facilitate that?'" he said.
Regarding the annual national tour, Legg said it's "a vital source of income" for the Rep and a key learning experience for students. He said he would look at ways to make its budget more efficient and examine which communities it's reaching and what stories it's telling.
The Rep's focus for decades has been on "great American stories." In a variation on that formula, Legg said he's excited about the notion of finding a great American novel that exists in the public domain and commissioning a "young, exciting contemporary playwright" to create a "radical revision" of it. Once it's on tour, it would have the name recognition to fill seats while giving audiences new ideas of "what that literature can be."
He would also look at ways to include female and playwrights of color who were working within that "great American stories" time period. As a whole, he's passionate about finding ways to include underrepresented groups such as women, people of color, the LGBTQI community on stage and off.
The Rep also has an annual Education Outreach Tour, which brings a locally written script into schools around the state. He said that's an important part of its mission and he would continue to work with local writers, while looking to "infuse more contemporary work" and learn what "the community wants to see."
Legg said he believes the Rep should be producing more theater in the community, an aspect he has experience with in Kentucky. It might be a piece of theater in a bar or an art gallery.
"We're actually getting the community excited about the work that we're doing and inviting them back to our home to see more. That's something that I would love to do here."
Working with musicians, visual artists and digital media to create on projects that "transcend" theater have proved fruitful. In one example, they shot a web series in which each of the four episodes took place in a local bar/music venue and featured a local band. After it was complete, everyone involved came to the theater to view it and find out how it ended, capped with a performance by cellist-songwriter Ben Sollee.
Legg said 80 percent of the audience had never been to the Actors Theatre.
"Once we hooked 'em, they kept coming back," he said. He said growing audiences requires reaching out to hear their priorities and then "taking the art" to them.
Steve Wing, the retired production manager who helped build the Rep into its current form, told Legg that in the past when the company tried to do projects like that, it was a strain on the department, and asked where he would find the resources.
Legg said that many of those projects he'd mentioned were produced without a budget, relying on partnerships with local businesses and community members. Whatever form they might take, it would depend on discussions with the university about its priorities.
In addition to his work at the Actors Theatre, since 2015 he has served as artistic director of the WildWind Performance Lab, a new play development lab and a summer intensive for students at Texas Tech University.
They develop work by students and national playwrights for production in a student season, which he sees as "a model that could have a great impact here."
"I think the Colony is a fantastic example of a laboratory for new works that can go on to have life" in Montana and across the country he said, while making sure the Rep's stamp remains on it.
Wing also was asked what Legg would teach within the department. At the Actors Theatre of Louisville, he sees between 1,500 to 2,000 auditions for 20 spots.
He sees himself as "more of an acting coach than an acting teacher," but feels comfortable teaching all aspects of theater. He even worked for several years as a theater agent in New York.
Wing asked whether Legg saw himself staying in the job long enough to achieve any of the things he'd mentioned. Legg responded that in his job in Louisville, it took at least eight years to achieve what he first envisioned. He said growth, whether large or small, takes a long time and requires "buy-in of the community, of the other constituents who are involved" if it's to be beneficial or permanent.
Kate Morris, a playwright and development director for the Zootown Arts Community Center, asked Legg about his fundraising experience. He said in Louisville, he has extensive experience talking with potential donors about the importance of its mission, while others handle "the ask." Several years ago, he helped secure a $1.3 million donation spread over 10 years. The money goes toward stipends for living expenses for the company's students. (The budget he oversees for his department is $250,000.)
Regarding the broader issue of fundraising for a company that's housed within a university, he said his experience was in the nonprofit world and didn't have any easy solutions, that he would work with the director of the school, the dean of the college, and the other stakeholders.
When Morris asked him to name two favorite plays from both the 20th century and 21st century, Legg pleaded to list more.
Some of the 20th century plays were "She Loves Me," which is a musical, even though he's not a musical guy. Another is "The Rainmaker," the play in which he earned his Actors' Equity card, and Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke."
One of the 21st century plays was "Do You Feel Anger" by Mara Nelson-Greenberg. He said it's "the smartest play I've ever read about misogyny and sexual harassment in the workplace."
His all-time favorite play is A. Rey Pamatmat's "Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them," which was produced at the Actors Theatre's Humana Festival.
"I think I saw it five times and wept like a small child every time I saw it," he said.