Written by Kathleen Goodwin
What makes a play? It is not the costumes or the lights or the music—not entirely, at least. It is not even the actors who perform their hearts out each day and night on stage. It is not the audience in the darkened theater. No, it is not the director or their vision, or the words in the script that actors bring to life. It is all of these little things in conjunction with the other, plus about a hundred more. It is the way that a group of people gather together to experience something, anything, together. Theatre is storytelling. It is each of us. And Montana Repertory Theatre seeks to engage the Missoula community with stories through education, artistic risk, imagination and collaboration. Established in 1967, the Montana Repertory Theatre is the only full-season professional theatre in the entire state of Montana. They produce four shows a year: a brand new, never before released play, a play with an educational component, a new take on an American Classic, and their new series, Plays on Tap. In addition, the Montana Rep does so much more, including actor in residence programs, touring, their play development initiative and more. Destination Missoula sat down with Michael Legg, Artistic Director at the Montana Repertory Theatre, to talk about the upcoming season, the importance of art, and how Montana inspires the work done by the Rep (and vice versa).
Michael Legg. Photo by Parker Seibold.
The Montana Repertory Theatre has always been associated with and embedded in the University of Montana, and, as Michael explained to us one day on stage at the university, that is actually a rarity. “There are probably less than a dozen professional theatres in the country that are associated with or embedded in a university. So the educational mission of the Rep has been around since the beginning, and that educational mission is very important to me in continuing the legacy of the Rep. I believe in an apprenticeship model in the truest form of the word. We hire in professionals—actors, designers, directors—from all over the country and then provide opportunities for the students here at the University of Montana to study with them, to learn from them, and build relationships in other cities for when they leave here.”
The Rep’s original mission was to produce theatre for the state of Montana and all the people who live in Montana. This was done for a long time, but eventually the model shifted to touring at least one program a year nationally. When Michael was hired as Artistic Director, he decided to return the Rep to its original mission. “It was nice that [the Rep] was able to share what we did with people in Kentucky or Alabama or Texas or Florida, but I think we have a responsibility to the people here in Montana to tell their stories, to tell the stories that they are interested in, and to provide that service right at home.”
Under Michael’s leadership, the Rep has already seen some changes.
“This is our first full season under my leadership. We started a new series called Plays on Tap, which are short plays for small audiences that are in cool places—like the back seats of cars or in hotel rooms—as a way to get out into the Missoula community. We want to continue that [this season]. What I really wanted to do [with the Plays on Tap series] was to say [to the Missoula community,] ‘I’m going to bring the theatre to you. I’m going to do plays in your backyard. I’m going to do plays at the bar where you drink. I want to do plays at the school where your kids go. I want to do plays in your house, and then I am going to invite you to come to my house. Then I will invite you to come sit down in a traditional theatre. Because I hope you are interested in and have been excited by the cool things that we are doing and you trust that if I ask you to come sit in a seat in the dark for 90 minutes that what you are going to see is going to be engaging and interesting and fun and is going to make you think and leave the theatre and talk about it afterwards.’”
From the Plays On Tap Series: Room Service.
Last year during the plays on tap, there were a limited number of tickets, but Michael says that they all sold out. This experience, he explains, was unlike anything that people here had seen before, and the community response was overwhelmingly positive. “When you watched a play in a car, it might just be you and one other person in the back seat and you are the audience, or there were a maximum of 10 people per hotel room watching those plays, and people consistently said that they had never seen anything like that here. And that they really got excited by being able to see a play in the community.”
The arts matter, and Michael is passionate about sharing theatre with the Missoula community and beyond. To him, it is more than just action on a stage. Whether that stage is a car or a hotel room or a traditional theatre, it is his duty and the duty of the Montana Rep to spread art and tell stories, and in doing so, to build up the community on the foundation of creative expression.
“As humans, one of the cornerstones of our culture—of our humanity—is storytelling. If you think for just a minute how many times a day you tell a story about what you did last night or what you did last week or what you did in high school or a trip that you took or the river that you floated—we tell a hundred stories every day. It’s in our makeup. It’s in our genetics. It’s in our being to share stories with one another. And what theatre does is it turns that sometimes individual or very small experience into a community experience. So one of the things I love about theatre and have always loved about theatre is that you walk into this space and you sit in a chair, probably next to a total stranger, and you get to watch a story unfold. And it may be a story that you are familiar with or it may be a story about somebody who is nothing like you, but you get to learn from that story and you get to do it in the presence of a group of people, the way we all used to sit around the fire and listen to stories. It’s how we share our experiences. It’s how we share our culture. How we bond. It allows us to learn about people who are different than us. I think watching stories and sharing stories helps build our own empathy. If you can sit in the dark and watch someone else’s experience then you can learn how to empathize with someone who is having that experience. I think that is important to all of us.”
Michael is also passionate about making theatre accessible to everyone, from the theatre aficionado to a total novice. It can be intimidating, he concedes, to enter a theatre and take a chance on a play. But he hopes and trusts that not only will Missoula give it a chance, but that they will grow to crave it. For the 2019-2020 season, Michael’s first full season as Artistic Director, Michael is excited to bring new and exciting theatre, whether it is a new production or an old American classic.
“For this first season, we are looking at a model that tries to attract as many people to come see our shows as possible. So we have a little something for everybody. We are starting out with a play called Go. Please. Go. which is a brand-new, world premiere, never-been-seen-anywhere-before play by an amazing playwright named Emily Feldman that I’ve known for a very long time. She is New York based right now and is about to have a play go up at Manhattan Theatre Club about the same time that our show is happening here, which is really exciting. She is going to be in residence here in Missoula for part of the process and through opening. My background is in contemporary works and new plays. For the past decade, all that I’ve done is work on plays that have never been produced before, and I wanted to bring that excitement and energy here to Missoula and try to convince people to take a chance on something they’ve never heard of or never seen before. We plan to have that component in every season that we do moving forward.”
In line with the original educational mission of the Montana Rep, the second play of the 2019-2020 season is their educational outreach play. “Our second show is called Love That Dog. Since the beginning, the Rep has been creating a show a season that is designed primarily for young audiences that we tour to libraries, schools and community centers all across the state. For a lot of these kids, it is the very first time that they have ever seen live theatre. We are also going to do three performances of that show here in Missoula for our audiences to see.”
Michael Legg takes a seat in the house at Montana Rep's on-campus theatre.
Michael is very interested in contemporary takes on American classics, and that is the model for the third play in the season. “What are the stories that you know and have known for a really long time? Then how do we put those on a stage that helps make them fresh and in a way that makes you think about them in brand new ways. The third show in our season harkins back to the Rep’s original mission. This show that the Rep used to tour was a play in the classic American canon. Plays by people like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller or Neil Simon. And while I respect those plays, I am curious what the new American classic looks like or how we can take a new spin on an American classic.”
For their third production in the 2019-2020 season, the Rep will be producing a theatrical rendition of the famous radio play The War of the Worlds Michael is curious to see how this well-known story can work, thrive, and be fresh and relevant for a 21st century audience. “The War of the Worlds started out in 1938 as a radio play that people sitting around their radios in their living rooms didn’t know wasn’t real. They then became convinced that aliens were invading the Earth. It created a little something of a panic. So we want to revisit that story [for a modern audience.] We are bringing in a really incredible director from New York named Caitlin O’Connell who is really excited to see what happens in a more theatrical version of that play, what happens when you present that play in a theatre space, what happens if all 25 roles are only played by 5 actors, what happens if they are creating all the sound effects on stage in that environment—but also, what does it mean in 2019 to hear a story that we think is real but isn’t.”
The final show in the four-show season this year is Back To School which is an installment of the Plays on Tap series that is being continued from last season. “We are going to commission five playwrights to write five brand new plays that nobody has ever seen before, but they all take place in various locations inside a middle school,” he explains. “We partner with breweries for the Plays on Tap Series, which is really fun. So you would buy a ticket and come to a brewery, and you have a couple of beers and then you have this experience. This time the plan is to put everybody on a school bus and drive them from the brewery out to the middle school and you will see five short plays in a variety of different spaces on a variety of different topics.”
Michael Legg at the Montana Rep's First Annual Gay-La Gal-a Gah-la Fundraiser.
Michael plans to use the four-show season model for a few years, with travel and touring built into at least one if not more of the shows’ runs. “What is lovely is that half of our season we take outside of Missoula—our educational outreach show and our new American Classic play—are going to tour across the state in a variety of different locations. And one of the really cool things is one of the last performances of The War of the Worlds here in Missoula will be broadcasted live across the state on Montana Public Radio. It is going to be cool—you can come to the theatre and watch how the show is done and then go home and turn on your radio that night and hear it live, which will be a lot of fun. We will be able to reach places in the state where we are not taking the tour. There are only so many cities we can hit, but we really want to bring what we are doing to as much of the state as possible, if not the entire state. No matter where you are in the state of Montana, on February 7, 2020, at 7:30 pm you can turn on your radio and hear this amazing show, from the Montana Theatre in Missoula.
“When we go to cast, we take a look at the play, we take a look at what we need: how many people, who are those people, how old are they, who are we generally looking for. Then we also decide what are the roles that we are going to hire professional actors to play, which roles we will hire local actors to play, and which roles we are going to hire students to play. And then the director, whether that is me or someone we hire in, holds auditions. The professional actors, who may come from anywhere, are brought in just for one production.”
The cast practices line dancing at rehearsal for Go. Please. Go.
The production process takes approximately five weeks, including two and a half weeks of rehearsal, a few days in the space with costumes and lights, and then about two weeks of performances. “It is really nice because we bring in [professional actors] who have already established themselves as professionals and started this career, and we bring them into our spaces. We have an open rehearsal policy here, which means that anybody—any student, any member of the community, anybody—can come in and watch the rehearsal of any show at any time. We actively invite the students [at the University of Montana] to come in, and they get to learn by watching these professionals work. These professional actors become friends with these students. If a student decides to go to New York, then they already have people that they’ve met and worked with that they can call up. It’s about expanding the network of resources for the students who are here.”
For the first time in history, the Montana Repertory Theatre will be offering season tickets for all four shows. A season ticket holder is guaranteed seating and a ticket for all productions, securing access to shows that sell out. They also get to pick their seats in advance and can purchase tickets for friends and family before they go on sale to the general public. Guests are also able to purchase tickets for individual shows, if they prefer.
However, Michael understands that not everyone who is interested in the Rep is able to buy tickets. For this reason, the Montana Rep is starting a new initiative called the Community Ticket Grant to allow underserved communities to access theatre. “I strongly believe that cost should never be a barrier to art,” he explains. “We are going to set aside a number of tickets for every performance of every show, and we are going to give those to nonprofits that work with underserved communities and let them distribute those tickets to anybody who couldn’t afford to come and see the theatre. I think that is important. It is important that we share in this experience together no matter our financial situation or our socioeconomic condition or our status. Theatre and music and dance and art—they are unifiers.”
Another new initiative starting this year is the Bitterroot Lab, a new play development initiative. The Montana Rep will work with six playwrights a year, helping them to workshop, develop and otherwise get their plays ready for production. “We’re working on new plays here in Missoula that will get seen all over the country,” Michael tells us. “If you look at the life of a new play, a playwright has an idea and writes a play, and they might write several drafts of that play, but eventually to continue the work on it, they have to hear that play out loud. One of the things I have done for the past 11 years is work in new play development. I get a playwright and a dramaturg, who knows structure and can serve as a surrogate for the audience at this stage, and a bunch of great actors and we sit around a table and hear the play out loud for the first time. The playwright can make changes live at the table. We will be rewriting and restructuring based on what s/he hears. And we will eventually go through enough of those processes that it is ready for first production. It can take months and years to refine a play and get it ready to be on the stage. We are going to do a bunch of that. We started last summer where we brought in two playwrights to workshop their plays: Kaela Mei Shing Garvin and Martina Majok, the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama. She came to Missoula and spent a week making a new play with us. That play is going to go up in New York soon, and when it does our name will be on it to say this was developed at Montana Repertory Theatre.”
The Bitterroot Lab, Montana Rep's play development initiative, sits down for a reading.
In planning a season, Michael says that he takes into consideration the Missoula and Montana audiences and carefully selects plays that he feels will be relevant, exciting, and will tell Montana stories.
“I am all the time looking for playwrights that have written about Montana or the surrounding areas. I am all the time talking to people and asking them, ‘What is your favorite story about Montana? Who is your favorite person? What happened here that I don’t know about?’ If it feels interesting and theatrical, we can ask a playwright to write that play. One of the things we are trying to do here is to kick off a commissioning program, and what that means is that if we have a story that we think we want to tell, we can search for a playwright that we think might be the right person to tell that story and ask them to write it for us. I’ve met a lot of people in my year here, and so many of them have such a reverence for this place and for this state. I get it now, having lived here for only a year. I love it here. I love living in this place. It feels so much smoother and simpler. I worry about a lot fewer things than I used to. I feel like the pace of life here feels really lovely to me, and the people I meet are all generally generous and caring and interesting people with their own stories, and I just want to try and tell some of those stories.”
Be sure to check out the Montana Repertory Theatre’s 2019-2020 season here and follow them on Facebook and Instagram for updates, behind the scenes photos of productions, and to learn more about the mission of the Rep.