Greg Johnson exhaled loudly and admitted he was relieved—and a little nervous. The artistic director of the Montana Repertory Theatre had just announced a “new era” for his company: a formal, one-year partnership with the owners of the Crystal Theatre. Under terms of the agreement, the Rep becomes the venue’s exclusive booking agent, and will take the lead in updating the venerable 99-seat performance space.
“One of my dreams for the Montana Rep—and this is going back 18 years now—was to find our own space,” said Johnson, who, like a lot of other local artists, has lamented Missoula’s lack of affordable, professional-level performance venues. “This gives us a chance to work in that direction and reach out to the community without having to go into real estate.”
Johnson says the partnership will have little impact on the Rep’s budget. The Crystal, which has been for sale since restaurant 515 closed in March, will remain on the market and under the ownership of David McEwen and his wife, Shirley. (If a buyer for the restaurant emerges, the couple said their agreement with the Rep would transfer.) Any revenue made from renting the Crystal will be split between the owners and the Rep, and the two parties will share insurance liability. Johnson says the only significant change to the Rep’s bottom line—which, as the theater-in-residence at the University of Montana, is handled through the institution—is the addition of one full-time employee who will handle the booking.
“One of the main advantages is the incentive to do upgrades,” said David McEwen. “And another thing is, to make sure [the Crystal] doesn’t die, to make sure it doesn’t go away…Shirley and I understand, I think, what this building means to the arts community and we don’t want to see it disappear.”
Johnson says the Crystal will continue to court an array of events—from animation festivals to sit-down concerts—and rental rates will not change. Theatergoers can expect to see upgrades—a new downstairs dressing room, new stage, professional light board, etc.—implemented over the next year, mostly through volunteer efforts and “sweat equity.”
“We have a vision and this is simply the first step,” said Johnson. “This is the first step, we hope, to making this a truly great downtown destination, a place where people who love the arts will come to hang out, eat, drink and stay for some entertainment. We all believe that can happen here.”