The two finalists for the artistic director of the Montana Repertory Theatre were announced on Thursday.
Since 1990, Greg Johnson has led the professional theater in residence at the University of Montana. He announced his retirement last fall and will step down at the end of the spring semester.
The finalists are Michael Legg, who is director of the professional training company at Actors Theatre of Louisville; and Peter Ellenstein, former artistic director of the William Inge Festival in Kansas, according to a news release from UM.
The two were picked by a search committee that Stephen Kalm, the dean of the School of Theatre & Dance, called together last year. The Rep's artistic director also teaches in the school, and the new hire will be a tenure-track associate professor.
Both of the finalists will visit UM with the opportunity to meet the public. Legg will visit on Jan. 24-26 and participate in a community forum at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25. Ellenstein will come to town from Jan. 31-Feb. 2, with a forum at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb 1. To attend, head to Room 123 in the Gallagher Business Building.
"We do want this person to be a public face for the Montana Rep," said John Kenneth DeBoer, chair of the search committee and a professor of theater. "I would like the community to have some input into what direction we head." He said Johnson's "vision" and "artistic values have shaped where the Rep has gone in the last 30 years" and his replacement will "chart the next step" for the company.
The artistic director oversees the Rep, which stages an annual national touring production; local productions of plays; an educational outreach tour that crisscrosses Montana; and the Colony, a playwrights' gathering that brings national talent to Missoula each summer.
Additionally, they oversee the administrative and budgetary sides of the company and teach one to two classes each semester.
DeBoer said the call for applicants was "successful" and drew international interest. The committee members were clear that they weren't seeking a "hard-right turn" in the company's direction, he said. The school and the new director will examine what's working well, and the tour remains an important part of its mission.
However, the tour will go on hiatus for 2019 for logistical reasons. DeBoer said it was a "perfect storm" involving the retirement of their director and their national booking agent, who works with presenters around the country to arrange the tour.
Both candidates have experience producing, directing, teaching and have served in administrative roles, overseeing organizations and budgets.
According to Ellenstein's curriculum vitae, he was a director of theater and an instructor at the William Inge Center for the Arts at Independence Community College. The small town of Independence, Kansas, was home to the playwright Inge. In his honor, the center hosts a four-day theater festival there each year, attracting national playwrights and attention.
From 2001-2014, Ellenstein designed the academic program and produced the festival, which involved directing, producing and collaborating with the playwrights, directors and performers. From 2015-16, he was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Miami.
He has more than 30 years of teaching experience, ranging from colleges to workshops and coaching. His classes ranged from advanced acting to musical theater, playwriting and more.
His professional experience also goes back 30 years. Notable highlights include his post as producing director of the Los Angeles Repertory Company from 1992 to 1999.
He has a master of fine arts in theater with a directing concentration from Minnesota State University. He's a member of the Actors Equity Association, the Screen Actors Guild, the Dramatists Guild and the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.
For 11 years, Legg has worked at the Actors Theatre, in Louisville, Kentucky, which has a year-round season with 20 productions of classical and contemporary theater, according to its website.
Legg's curriculum vitae lists his work for the professional training company at the theater. He curates, programs and produces a seven-show season of new works and also directs.
It also lists community and donor relations work; development of short- and long-term planning; supervising and developing post-graduates in acting, administrative and technical roles; and managing budgets, among other work.
Since 2015, he's served as artistic director of the WildWind Performance Lab, where he oversees a four-play series, working with college students on the new play development process. He's taught classes and workshops on auditioning, networking and social media for theater professionals, a course on career development, and new play development.
He has a master of fine arts degree in acting from the University of North Carolina Greensboro and is an Actors Equity Association member.
The timing of the retirements of the director and booking agent complicated the notion of a 2019 tour. Johnson is stepping down at the end of the spring semester. The national touring play, meanwhile, needs to be selected far in advance and booked by the previous January.
They're close to finalizing a new booking agent, who will begin working with the new director on the 2020 tour.
Johnson said they felt that proceeding with a tour without an agent would be "chaotic" and unfair to his replacement. "Discretion became the better part of valor here and we decided to just take a hiatus for one year while the new artistic director found his or her feet, (and) the new booking agent found their relationship" with the presenters around the country, he said.
During Johnson's tenure, the Rep greatly expanded its reach and developed its current model, focusing on "great American stories."
He said he's proud of the company as he prepares to hand it over, and believes that every five years or so it needs a new shot of energy or "re-commitment" to its mission. Johnson, who's 68, said the company is approaching another moment, but it didn't feel like "the climb" was for him.
"I'm certain, I'm confident, that whoever takes over will have that energy and will infuse the next five years, or 10 or 20, or however long they're here, with the energy that's needed," he said.