It’s a unique experience, going to a Colony play, maybe the most purposeful judgment one can be a part of in Missoula.
Why – a non-theater lover may wonder – would I pay to sit through readings of unfinished plays, put on without sets, costumes or even much rehearsal? Where’s the satisfaction gained from enjoying completed artwork, already through its many kinks and confusing detours?
It requires a motivational shift, to not sit through a finished product and remark upon its merits to your date afterward in amateur critic mode, but to be a part of the process. Ignore the scaffolding and look past the mumbled lines to use whatever judgment you have to help build a better experience.
Don’t leave at intermission. Wait until the end to tell the playwright that you felt like leaving at intermission (more cliffhangers!).
“I think I know now, to follow the receipt all the way through.”
That was playwright Shaun Gant’s first self-critique after the staging of her play “The Oulipo Murders.” The receipt is one of many clues slowly revealed through the knotty thriller.
The play follows a pair of friends who end up in Lagos, Nigeria, one on the trail of an internet lover, the other on the same man’s trail, but to catch him as a scammer.
“The Oulipo Murders” is densely packed with ideas ranging from obscure literary devices to mosquito-borne diseases to internet scam-baiting.
After the two-act play finished, Gant said watching her play with an audience helped her see which parts were working and which weren’t. Repetitive scenes, or underplayed aspects of the mystery, were starker than on the page.
“You can’t bore (the audience),” Gant said during her talkback, “but you have to give them all the clues so they can solve it.
“I don’t think I’ve done that.”
The audience chimed in, appreciative of Gant’s focus on internet scam-baiting, where citizens take it upon themselves to distract scammers so they don’t prey on vulnerable people. Gant had heard about the practice years ago on “This American Life,” and became enmeshed in the world for a while before deeming it too risky.
One of the actors asked Gant if she’d thought of writing the play in an episodic, or television format, since the dense story felt like it would work better over a series, rather than one play.
Gant hadn’t really thought about it, but agreed it could be episodic. She saw parts of it that were dramatized and cartoonish as well, both things that work for TV.
“I don’t know if this play wants to be full farce or more serious yet,” Gant mused. Later, she reflected on which character had the most depth — she decided not on one of her protagonists, but a tertiary character who comes into play during the second act.
By the time “The Oulipo Murders” hits the stage for real, it may look very different. It might even have a different title – that was suggested as well.
Another play at the Colony likely won’t look too different. “Morgan and Merlin,” written by Hellgate High School drama teacher Laramie Dean, will be the Montana Repertory Theatre’s educational outreach play in 2018, toured in middle schools and high schools across the state.
“Morgan and Merlin” follows the witch and wizard of “The Sword in the Stone” fame, as Morgan learns to come to terms with her dark past and use her powers for good.
Although done without sets or costumes, the two-person play was more polished than other Colony pieces. Dean said later it was his fourth or fifth draft.
He and director Rosie Ayers’ talkback focused on how the show would play with kids who don’t know the tales of King Arthur — there’s a lot of references to ins and outs of the roundtable world not covered by the 1963 movie.
Dean’s main focus was creating a play with a strong female lead, also showing that people who do bad things can have redemption.
“The more we can present that to younger people,” Dean said. “The thing about the world, is it isn’t black and white.”