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University of Montana

University of Montana students rehearse for one-act plays that will be performed this week.

Shane Lutz and his cast have gone through what could lightly be called "team-building exercises" bringing a play to life.

"When everything goes awry, it feels like the world is ending very quickly," said the 24-year-old, who's directing a play as part of the master's program in the School of Theatre & Dance at the University of Montana. Lutz and the cast of UM undergraduates and stage managers got shut out of a building that held their props, ones that they had to come up with themselves. They worked around double-booked rehearsal spaces. Yet the aspiring director said they stayed focused.

"The ensemble group mentality, the energy that they bring, is so profound and wonderful, that when something goes wrong, they drop everything. They take a deep breath, and we join together and discuss how we can fix it," Lutz said.

Earlier this week, as they did their final rehearsals, Lutz felt they had a cohesive version of “Woyzeck,” a play written in 1820 by Georg Büchner. One of Lutz's professors told him a way to gauge whether things were going according to plan.

"If the show you direct is at least 60 percent of your vision, then it's a success. And after our last run, looking at this, it is almost 90, 95 percent of what I set out to create and I owe that completely to the team and the ensemble," he said.

It will be performed this week in the Masquer Theatre on campus, alongside "Biography of a Constellation," directed by Jadd Davis, who is also studying for his MFA in directing.

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Davis and Lutz are the two students in the program studying for the MFA in directing — a third student is studying musical direction.

The plays are their "qualifying project." They are admitted to the program on a provisional basis, said Michael Legg, a professor of theater and the director of the Montana Repertory Theatre.

"The expectation is that, in the first year, the students will demonstrate through an artistic project that they are qualified to continue and eventually complete the degree," he wrote in an email. "With these directors, we’re looking at their choice of material, how they conduct rehearsals and design meetings, and the quality of the final product both to learn something about the artists they’ll become but also their potential for success in an academic environment."

Not finding a lone comparison that could summarize the director's job, Legg first went for the most important: an editor, who "takes all the fantastic ideas in the room and figures out which ones will work."

They're part ringmaster, chief executive, artist and babysitter as well. While they take directing classes as undergraduates and graduates, the ultimate learning happens on the job, when they're in a room with a cast and crew looking to them for leadership, he said.

When judging whether a play was successful, Legg likes to examine whether the audience reactions match the intended effect.

Are they quietly leaving the lobby after the show, or are they eagerly discussing what they just saw? If they are talking about it, are they enthusiastic, or scratching their heads?

Legg said students who pursue directing after graduation will generally first get work as assistant director and then work their way upward — he described the professional-level learning curve as "steep."

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For this project, the student-directors pick their own script after consulting with their advisors, then are given some technical support and set "loose," Davis said, casting from a pool of UM theater students and developing the play.

The two plays will be performed in the Masquer Theatre, the minimal "black box"-style theater in the PAR/TV Building.

Legg said they're given some technical support, but it's limited. In a spare production, the director's choices are clearly visible and aren't obscured by fancy production.

Davis, a 36-year-old who was born in Butte and raised in Coeur d'Alene, already established a career in theater. First he was an actor; but then found that his tendency to analyze what was happening on stage — thinking about what was happening from multiple angles — better suited him to directing than acting.

Most recently, he spent five years as the artistic director of the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theater. He returned to get his master's to improve his understanding of the craft. He'd like to teach at the university level someday, and a higher degree is necessary. He also needed a change: the summer theater material is heavy on musicals and lighter material catered toward tourist audiences, and had begun to feel repetitive to him.

Davis chose "Biography of a Constellation," by Lila Rose Kaplan, after reading through a number of options on the New Play Exchange. After working so long in musicals and traditional theater, he wanted to explore a work by a woman playwright.

Kaplan's script, which will run about 60 minutes, tells a "semi-biographical" tale of Annie Jump Cannon. According to a December article on Forbes.com, Cannon "developed the system astronomers use to classify stars," and "classified over 350,000 stars herself."

Davis said it introduces myth along with the science. For instance, when Cannon is classifying Andromeda, audience members will see that myth enacted on stage simultaneous to other action.

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Lutz has wanted to direct since age 17 and focused on it as an undergrad at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Initially, Lutz wanted to write and direct original scripts rather than see them staged by someone else.

"I liked being an eye that could take in everything and decide narrative decisions, creative decisions, artistic ones. All of that. Also as a playwright, it was important to me to have the autonomy to tell my own stories, and be able to tell my own stories," Lutz said.

Büchner wrote the play in 1880 and it wasn't produced until 1919, he said. The German version he and his team originally looked at wasn't a right fit due to time and casting limitations. Lutz, who lived in Germany for four years, translated and adapted his own version over winter break.

It's Americanized, with references to huckleberries, American folk songs and the Western landscape.

Lutz, who wants to continue making socially-minded theater after college, made sure Büchner's message stayed the same.

"This could be set in ancient Egypt, this could be set in the time of Jesus. It could be the Revolutionary War. It can be any time," he said. "It's about people under oppression and people striving against larger systems to find their freedom, and inevitably failing."

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