In 2016, a tourist to Yellowstone National Park was with his son in a rental car and observed a bison calf separated from its herd. Worried the calf was cold, the man picked up the calf, put it in the trunk of the rental car and drove to a ranger station. He was ticketed; the calf had to be euthanized.
Ciara Griffin, a University of Montana graduate who was working at a theater in New York City at the time, immediately texted her friend Kendra Potter.
“First of all, this is insane that that would happen,” Griffin said. “It just felt so epic.”
It was also perfect source material for a story Griffin wanted to tell, one about humanity’s deteriorating relationship with nature in the 21st century.
“They weren’t totally stupid,” she said of the tourists. “This is the appropriate way to handle it in different places around the world.”
But the media storm that followed, where the tourists were chastised for their naivete, then further blamed for the bison calf’s euthanization, also captured Griffin’s interest. This intersection of ideas seemed to capture something at the heart of the American experience. Throw in a dash of political divide following the 2016 election and you’ve got the gist of their new play's big ideas.
“The Buffalo Play” is a one-act, single-setting play, with a small cast. Griffin and Potter, who co-wrote the play, act as the two leads, the woman arrested for putting a bison calf in her car and the calf’s mother, who may or may not be a figment of the woman’s imagination (but is played with gusto by Potter in full, hairy costume).
The two discuss Griffin’s motivation and the bison mother teaches her about nature. Later, Hank (played by Jeremy Sher), a rancher picked up for drunk driving, is tossed in the jail cell with them, bringing comedic relief and a rootsy antidote to Griffin’s big city perspective.
Those three characters form the base of the play, debating and sharing their lives with one another, gradually coming into their own as three-dimensional characters who generally are all trying to do the right thing, no matter if they sometimes fail.
Projections, along with creative practical and audio technology (there are working udders on Potter’s bison costume!) work to flesh out the single-room play, adding surrealism and depth.
“It’s challenging and it’s weird,” Griffin said. “But our hope is when people come that they identify with some little bit of the show.”
Griffin and Potter started work on the play over a shared Google Doc, before eventually sharing the finished script with BetweenTheLines director/founder Mason Wagner.
He pushed to produce the play, while Griffin and Potter’s MT+NYC Collaborative group would put the show on in both cities.
“It was the first play I’d ever really read that confronted our disconnect with nature in such an effective way,” Wagner said. “I felt they really tapped into something.”
Wagner directed and oversaw the lighting, which involved bringing what he described as a “highly poetic” script to life in three dimensions. This involved tweaking some unstageable sections of the play, while translating other monologues into actions and visuals, like a patch of growing grass, the tearing out of "guts" or Marshall Granger’s projections.
“We’re kind of taking this space as the woman’s brain,” Wagner said of the surrealism of the play. “It’s just the paranoia and fear turned up to 11, which is what happens.”
He described the climax, where the characters are forced to reckon with the historical trauma each bring to the table, as “when the trip starts to get really bad.”
The Missoula dates, including the preview show on April 13, will serve as a bit of a test run for the New York City run later this spring, which is in a smaller, more rigid space, Wagner said.
He anticipated changing technical aspects of the play to fit the other theater, but thought the content of the show, from its digs at Griffin’s liberal, social-justice-focused Brooklynite to the locals-only Montana references, would likely stay the same.
“It feels a little scientific in that way,” he said. “The variable is the audience.”
Potter was interested in the difference in audience reaction as well; she recalled bringing a group of New Yorkers to Yellowstone for a playwriting retreat years ago.
“They were like, ‘The wilderness, the wilderness!’ she laughed. “I realized I’d have to rethink the 8-mile hike I had planned.”
But it cuts both ways, Potter noted. Montanans can struggle equally in large cities like New York. This leaves plenty of opportunity for the two audiences to meet in the middle while watching “The Buffalo Play.”
“I have no idea how this is going to land for the audience, but I feel like this is a show with a little something for everyone, but (is) not entirely for anyone.”