Since 1997, "To Kill A Mockingbird" has been the Montana Repertory Theatre's signature play.
The professional theater-in-residence at the University of Montana took it on a national tour that broke it into bigger markets and established its reputation as a company that specialized in great American stories.
Now the Rep is taking Harper Lee's classic tale of racism and justice in the American South to China for a three-week, two-city tour.
On May 15, a cast of UM students, undergraduate and graduate students, none of whom took part in the prior "Mockingbird" tours, are departing.
"Nobody in the company has ever done it before, so they're all coming to it fresh," said Salina Chatlain, a Rep staff member and "Mockingbird" actress.
In Beijing, they'll perform at Tsinghua University and Beijing No. 4 Middle School as part of the Meet in Beijing Arts Festival, an annual international arts gathering that spans from the end of April to the beginning of May.
In Chongqing, they'll perform at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law.
No. 4 Middle School isn't a junior high, it's a top-ranked high school. Two of its students auditioned for the part of Dill and another local will play Cunningham.
Most of the audience members speak English. Two LED screens on either side of the stage will provide broad descriptions of the action but not a literal translation.
The trip is funded with a $48,000 Chinese cultural exchange grant from the U.S. State Department, according to the tour's producer Stephen Kalm. The festival and Southwest University are covering expenses such as lodging and meals on their arrival.
Kalm and Montana Rep Artistic Director Greg Johnson arranged the trip to China, which has been an idea of Johnson's for some 12 years. He doesn't believe that any American theater companies have performed the piece in China before.
"It's a real breakthrough and a wonderful way to really interact with another culture," said Kalm, the dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Kalm was in China on an unrelated trip in 2015 when he began approaching organizations about a possible "Mockingbird" venture. The China Arts and Entertainment Group and the festival both took them up on the proposal and began working toward the trip — the final step being the grant.
Cost restrictions drove some unforeseen changes to the production, which they'd previously envisioned as a natural revival of their previous ones.
"I thought I was going to have it easy as director," Johnson said.
The Rep has an extensive "Mockingbird" touring set in storage, but it would cost $25,000 to ship it abroad, according to Michael Monsos, their lighting and set designer. He also teaches scenic design at UM and is the director of the School of Theatre and Dance.
The estimate for building a set in China came back at roughly the same price, a prohibitive amount.
So the Rep decided to go minimalist, in the spirit of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," which is often produced with a bare stage and a few chairs. They'll use four sawhorses, five planks, two A-frame ladders and chairs to sketch out the scenes of 1930s Maycomb, Alabama.
"That's not rehearsal scenery," Johnson said of the rehearsal photographs. "That's scenery."
Monsos said "Our Town," which premiered in 1938, is the touchstone play for minimal sets, but over the years there have been many scripts that specify for spare materials, in addition to stripped-down interpretations of existing shows.
"It's a popular convention that isn't used all the time but when it is, we get reminded how wonderful and lovely the story can be when you hyper-simplify it," he said.
He's fond of telling students that when you use a large set, it becomes "the biggest actor" on the stage. With a minimal one, there's nothing else competing with the actors and the story for viewers' attention. (The school stages a deliberately no-budget "studio" production once a year for this reason.)
By creatively moving those pieces around, the "Mockingbird" team can construct the major settings of the play: The front porch of the Finch house, where the attorney Atticus Finch (Jeff Medley) lives with his children Jem (Morgan Solonar) and Scout (Hannah Appell). It's enough to create the courtroom, where Finch defends Tom Robinson (Tsiambwom Akuchu), a black man accused of raping a young white woman.
By setting a plank between the two ladders, they can simulate the balcony where black residents must sit, where the kids sneak in to watch the trial. The sawhorses will signify the attorneys' desks and the judge's bench. Witnesses will take the stand behind a fourth sawhorse.
Nineteen people in total will go, including Johnson, Monsos, Kalm and other production members. A journalism graduate student is following along to make a documentary.
In lieu of auditions, Johnson cast UM theater students, several recent graduates and some community members. Chatlain, a Rep staffer, is playing Maudie. Medley, a poll-topping Zelig figure in Missoula theater, is in yet another straight dramatic role after building his reputation on quirky characters.
Solonar, a 20-year-old Montana native studying for her BFA, has made playing boys a theme of her undergraduate resume. She played Jim Hawkins in UM's "Treasure Island" and has another male role lined out for next year. The 20-year-old Montana native has never left the country before.
Chatlain said that in some ways, it's easier with this set-up. The cast has been blocking and rehearsing in the Schreiber Gym with set materials similar to the ones they'll rent in China. A full set, meanwhile, would be an unknown quantity until they arrived in the country.
Monsos said this set — a small-scale but creative venture — turned out to be similar to what the festival organizers were expecting.
While in China, they'll give workshops. Bluesman Andre Floyd, who's playing the Rev. Sykes, will give a music workshop. Kalm, a trained opera singer who's been name-checked in the New York Times, will give a voice workshop, and Johnson will teach a theater workshop. Akuchu, a graduate student who also choreographs in the dance program, will share hip-hop dance.