A full season of plays and theater projects in the community. More nationally recognized guest artists. A statewide tour instead of a national one.
These are a few of the things that lie ahead for the Montana Repertory Theatre, a professional company in residence at the University of Montana. The 2019-20 season will be the first full year with new artistic director Michael Legg at the helm, who came here from the Actors' Theatre of Louisville.
He wants the Rep, now in its 52nd season, to be "the state theater of Montana," with eyes on touring a full season of plays around Big Sky Country, from the major cities to rural communities like Plains.
"When the theater was founded, it was about doing theater by, about and for the people of the state, and it's really what I connect to," he said.
The 2019-20 season will open next fall with the world premiere of a play written by Emily Feldman, "Go. Please. Go." She wrote two short plays in the Rep's new "Plays on Tap" series so far, and this will be her first full-length work with the company.
It centers on "a couple who decide to break up at the beginning of the play and then manage to take about 70 years not to break up," Legg said. With humor and a little sadness and nostalgia, it examines "who we choose to spend our lives with," he said.
Legg, who has a background in new play development, will direct. They'll stage it in the Masquer Theatre, UM's black-box performance space.
The touring play
In years past, the Rep has opened a classic American play with a cast of students and equity professionals at UM's Montana Theatre, and then takes it around the state and the country.
In January, they'll present the original script of "War of the Worlds," the radio broadcast made famous in 1938 when Orson Welles produced it on radio and triggered nationwide panic.
The Rep production, with actors doing most of the sound effects live on stage, will mine contemporary resonances with "fake news." Legg said New York-based director Caitlin O'Connell is "interested in how we trust the organizations that give us information, and what happens when we think something is real, and then find out that it's not."
In a nod to Welles, they're planning a live broadcast across Montana after the tour.
They won't be producing it nationally, however, a break with a tradition that Legg called "financially unsustainable."
Roughly 30 percent of the Rep's budget is fulfilled by UM and grants, 30 percent comes from ticket sales, and so they need another 40 percent from contributions and donations, Legg said.
The interim dean in the college that the company falls under said that "whatever model the Rep is operating under, it has to pay for itself."
John DeBoer, an associate professor of theatre and the interim dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, said it's unfortunate that the Rep won't tour to the Southeast and East Coast any longer. However, the audiences for a straight play — i.e., not a musical — in those areas were shrinking.
Another factor was the retirement of their longtime booking agent, which coincided with former Rep director Greg Johnson's retirement in 2018. It was difficult to find a new agent with the same professional relationships who could book enough shows to make a tour financially viable, DeBoer said.
Legg said "it was hard to break even on a national tour, and I think if Montana Rep wants to stay around for another 50 years, it's time for an evolution, it's time for a change so that we can grow."
Each summer, the Rep has hosted acclaimed visiting playwrights and local writers to develop new work. Legg plans on continuing that broad idea while splitting it into three parts. They're moving the first dates to May, so that students who are still in town after the semester can participate, and community members might be more inclined to when it's not the peak of summer. (It's free and open to the public.)
He's not yet sure what the new version of the Colony will be called — they're in discussions with a sponsor regarding naming rights.
From May 8-11, they'll bring in Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin, who won a 2018 Mark Twain Prize for Comic Playwriting. She'll work on a new play called "Butter Knife." The following week, the guest is Martyna Majok, who won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play, "Cost of Living." While here, she's working on a play called "Sanctuary City."
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The entire process will be open, including rehearsals. There will also be master classes, workshops and a Q&A, culminating with a public reading.
Marti Lyons will direct Garvin's play. Lyons' credits include cutting-edge theaters in Washington, D.C., and her home base of Chicago. Sarah Lunnie, a former literary manager with Playwrights Horizons, will be the dramaturge, who functions something like an editor.
They'll also bring out playwrights for similar workshops in next fall and spring, and hope those provide opportunities for students here in Missoula, far from major centers for theater, to interact with top professionals.
"They're going to get to know them as human beings and start making connections that will help them in their career," Legg said.
DeBoer said bringing in artists and productions like the ones the Rep has invited can "expose students to new ways of thinking about theater."
Often, they finish high school more familiar with large-cast musicals and American classics, rather than the small-cast contemporary work that is more common now. The School of Theatre & Dance, which has a full season of plays in the Montana and Masquer theaters, will still do Shakespeare, large musicals and classics, and explore "the great dramatic literature of the Western canon," while the Rep can provide a complement.
Legg hopes that the Rep can eventually produce some of the scripts developed here. Regardless, it still raises the profile of the company, he said, since any productions would credit them.
Next year, they're going to workshop a new musical about Jeannette Rankin. The creative team is Lauren Gunderson, who at one point in recent years was the most-produced playwright in America, director Erin Ortman and composer Ari Afsar.
'Plays on Tap'
The Rep is currently producing its second set of site-specific plays, "Room Service," this weekend at the Campus Inn. For 2019-20, it will be called "Back to School," and will set plays by nationally produced scribes in different rooms and space in a middle school, potentially the teachers' lounge, classrooms, and gym.
"We have so many memories and baggage and nostalgic hangups about those middle school years that I think it would be a lot of fun to put people in that space again, and tell some stories there," Legg said.
Educational Outreach Tour
There aren't major changes to this tour, which brings a play to schools, libraries and community centers around Montana where theater is rare.
"For a lot of those kids, it is the first time they'll have seen a live theatrical experience," he said.
The play is "Love That Dog," adapted from the novel by Sharon Creech, which was first produced at the New York City Children's Theater. The young protagonist copes with the death of his dog through poetry, which Legg thought could make poetry accessible through the most ubiquitous of Montana pets.
Community initiative and sponsors
The Rep is starting a new community ticket grant program, in which they'll set aside a block of tickets for each show and donate them to a nonprofit to distribute to underserved communities.
"I firmly believe that cost should not be a barrier to art, that everybody should be able to come and see these stories and see these productions, and so we have to figure out a way to make that happen," he said. They're currently talking with a potential sponsor organization about that program.
They're also starting an individual sponsor program, ranging from $100 to $2,500. The perks will include early access to first readings, technical rehearsals, meet-the-artist events, and more.
The donations will primarily go toward the ticket grant and the educational tour, and so his "ask" is that the programming leans toward providing access to theater for both young people and those who normally can't see it.
DeBoer said UM President Seth Bodnar and the provost's office were informed about the changes to the national tour and responded positively. Legg announced many of the changes publicly on Thursday at a gala fundraiser, yet another way to pay for the programming.
"We have to find a way of finding high-quality performing arts for the people and make it sustainable," DeBoer said.