You buy your ticket to see plays. You get a map. You'll show up at a parked car, somewhere around downtown Missoula. Jump into the backseat with your companions, one or two at the most. Then the actors in the front seat will perform a brand-new short play, around 10 minutes. Afterward, follow your map to the next location and the next parked car and see a new play. Midway through, you're invited to stop at the KettleHouse for a drink and talk to other audiences members.
The Montana Repertory Theatre's "Plays on Tap" series will debut next weekend with "Buckle Up," a series of five short plays, staged in parked cars.
It's the ambitious first production from Michael Legg, who was hired as artistic director of the professional theater-in-residence at the University of Montana earlier this year.
He comes from the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where he staged similar events: site-based short plays for small audiences, over the course of 10 years.
Here in Missoula, he sees it as way to introduce himself, and the diverse kinds of stories he wants to tell, to the audience. He also believes they're a way of bringing the art form out of the formal setting of a theater and into the community, potentially reaching a broader base that might be intimidated by the idea of a full-length show.
He's planning another "Plays on Tap" for the spring, which will take same idea to hotel rooms instead of cars, before diving into productions on campus, ideally drawing an audience that's become engaged and curious.
"Now that you see the kind of work that we want to produce," he said, "I'm going to ask you to come to our house and sit in that theater and watch something together as a community."
Legg is directing each play himself and enlisted playwrights that he's collaborated with before. They are Emily Feldman, Idris Goodwin, Claire Kiechel, Sam Myers and Mara Nelson-Greenberg who he said are "both breaking through and also a deep part of new, fresh, exciting contemporary theater in America."
Pitching the "car plays" concept to them wasn't difficult.
"Playwrights are also looking for ways to break out of the boundaries of their craft. When you say, 'Do you want to write something that's just a little off-kilter, do you want to write a play that takes place in a car or in a hotel room, or while you're floating down the river?' then they tend to jump at that kind of thing," he said.
Without giving too much away, he said that one play is a ghost story. Another is "the entire journey of a relationship in 12-and-a-half minutes." Another is "about music and what happens when you lose your muse." Another is a "test of a friendship."
Legg, 47, was hired as the artistic director of the Rep, a professional company in residence at UM, earlier this year. He took over from Greg Johnson, who led the Rep for almost 25 years, before retiring.
Legg spent 11 years at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky as the director of professional training company. That included programming a series of shows in addition to teaching. He also spent four years as the artistic director of the WildWind Performance Lab at Texas Tech University.
The Rep's marquee production is the annual tour, which takes professional union actors and UM students across the country each year. The aesthetic that Johnson and the Rep cultivated over the years was a focus on great American stories, an outlook that brought the company its widest success with "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Outside of the tour, the Rep has put on smaller productions for downtown audiences over the years. They included more provocative works, whether by local, national or international ones.
The touring production is on hiatus for the 2018-19 season. Johnson's departure coincided with the retirement of the Rep's touring agent. They decided the dual change-over in leadership warranted a one-year pause.
For the 2020 production, Legg plans to pursue the notion of "Great American stories" from a different vantage. Instead of looking for a classic script, he's found a classic novel whose copyright has entered into the public domain and commission an adaptation by a contemporary playwright. The production will retain the name recognition for audiences while giving the both writer and the Rep a wide amount of artistic license.
Legg plans on continuing the annual educational outreach tour, and believes it's "important that kids all over Montana see live theater for the first time." He also plans on continuing the summer Colony playwrights gathering with some changes.
From his time in Kentucky and Texas, Legg has worked with many playwrights on new productions, and hopes to bring them to Missoula in the future. In Louisville, Legg produced a similar "Plays on Tap" series.
For "Buckle Up," he cast actors from the community alongside UM students.
Amirra Patterson, who's pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater, is acting in Goodwin's play.
She said the experience thus far was cool and different. "I've never acted in a car. I've thrown plenty of tantrums in a car, but I've never acted in a car," she said. She and her scene partner, Isaiah Hesford, received a new draft of the script earlier this week. Legg said the writers will sometimes view rehearsals via Skype or FaceTime to see the process and make revisions.
Writers often say that a short story is more difficult than a novel, which Legg agreed is also true of short plays versus evening-length ones, describing a 10-minute script as "the purest distillation of a moment in time."
"You get this 10-minute window into the lives of these two characters, or this relationship, and it's all you get, right?" he said. You don't necessarily have any of the context. You just get to walk in, or in this case, climb in the backseat of a car see these very important 10 minutes, maybe the most 10 minutes for this relationship, and then it's done," he said.
You may find out, or may not. It depends on the script, and whether you jump in the car.