Seated at a table in the Masquer Theatre on Friday, two actors exchanged dialogue from a new script in progress by award-winning playwright Martyna Majok.
After running through a short sequence, they stopped. Then they'd pick apart the lines.
For instance, Majok and Michael Legg, the artistic director of the Montana Repertory Theatre, and dramaturge Sarah Lunnie, discussed the emphasis of a few words delivered by Esau Mora, a visiting actor.
Underneath it all, what was Mora's character conveying when he said a phrase as concise as "I can't"?
When he says "I can't," with the emphasis on "can't," it implied one thing. Changing the emphasis to "I" changes the meaning to him and the character played by his scene partner, Aline Dufflocq, a recent University of Montana graduate.
They ran through it again and moved ahead, stopping frequently and, as Legg put it, "microscopically," to discuss the subtext or subtly change lines, or remove extraneous words.
They've been working on the play since Wednesday. Majok was rewriting the entire time. On Friday, Majok brought in 12 new pages. By Saturday, they'll have the first staged reading of the script, called "Sanctuary City."
Majok is here for the new iteration of the Colony, an annual program of workshops and staged readings presented by the Montana Repertory Theatre, a professional company in residence at the University of Montana.
Michael Legg, the Rep's new artistic director, restructured the event, and partnered with the national Dramatists Guild Foundation's Traveling Master's Program to bring the writers like Majok to Missoula. (The new version doesn't have a title yet, and naming rights are open to an interested sponsor.)
He hopes that these Rep workshops can show audiences the process of developing a play from the very beginning. Masquer sessions were open to the public, a draw especially to local playwrights, and could bring three dozen people through on a given day. He hopes the workshops build relationships so that perhaps in the future, the Rep can stage a full production of a new play like "Sanctuary City" right here in Missoula.
Last year, Majok won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for "Cost of Living." The Pulitzer website described it as "an honest, original work that invites audiences to examine diverse perceptions of privilege and human connection through two pairs of mismatched individuals: a former trucker and his recently paralyzed ex-wife, and an arrogant young man with cerebral palsy and his new caregiver."
Majok, whose last name is pronounced "my-oak," was born in Poland and her family immigrated to the United States, where she grew up in Chicago and New Jersey.
"Most of the plays that I write tend to be personal stories that come from my having grown up in a large immigrant community," she said. It was too early in the stages of "Sanctuary City" to talk about specifics, but the title alone implies a lot.
She doesn't think of her work as "political" in the sense that people might think, but "there's also a political aspect that I can't take out of these people's lives."
"Immigration law dictates what they can and can't do in the world, and that affects the choices they have to make in the world that they live in," she said.
Majok said workshops like these, in a less urban environment than New York, are beneficial.
"I like to be away from my life as much as I can when I'm working on a play," she said, since it can limit the distractions and provide inspiration.
"I find it useful to be far from what I assume to be true," she said. Leaving the city can help her "realize I've made certain default decisions about how I'm supposed to be living my life, or how a life is supposed to go," she said.
On Wednesday, she brought in a draft of "Sanctuary City." She said she knows where it's going, but this week's project was to determine "the most satisfying journey" there — finding which parts are honest and refine the storytelling.
Legg, who came to the Rep last year from the Actors Theatre of Louisville, said workshops like these are a normal part of the professional play development process, and can take many different forms and have different results — sometimes scripts change more than others.
Last week, the visiting playwright was Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin, a Brooklyn playwright, who was working on a play called "Butter Knife." Her script evolved radically over the course of the workshop, and will likely continue to do so, according to Lunnie, who as dramaturge is a key part of the process.
"Kaela left feeling excited about the discoveries and what she learned, and also a new set of questions, so I would imagine that that script would continue to change drastically," she said.
Lunnie was the literary director at Playwrights Horizons and has worked on developing new plays around the country and teaches at New York University.
As dramaturge, she thinks of herself as a collaborative editor. She works most frequently with playwrights, but also directors and designers, and the nature of her contributions varies on when in "the life cycle of a project" that she gets involved, she said.
In Majok's case, the draft was polished and already workshopped, and she's still learning Majok's language, so she's here "as a sounding board, and to help facilitate conversation."
Some of the actors came from outside Missoula. Mora is a former collaborator of Legg's and Majok's. Brian Tibayan was here from the University of Idaho in Moscow. Legg hopes to draw on actors from the larger region for the Rep projects, which have expanded to a full season. Others are students or recent grads like Dufflocq.
"For everybody here, it's an educational experience," Legg said. "These folks are experiencing this play for the first time, they're learning what it means to work with a director and a dramaturge and a playwright in real time here in these circumstances."