By SIMONE ELLIS
The creative side of the University of Montana provides one of the many cultural fringe benefits that stem from living in this college town. Deep inside the right hemisphere of the University of Montana's campus, there is an old and prestigious fine arts school humming away at all hours of the day and night.
As a side effect, the community at large gets to share the imagination of those involved in the arts programs. This year's graduates from UM's Masters of Fine Arts program will be featured in a series of shows which promise to be well worth catching.
According to Tom Rippon, who teaches ceramics and sculpture, UM's MFA program is one of the strongest of its kind in the country. "We are a diverse faculty," he says, "and we never know what's going to happen, but we love it that way."
Every year some 30 to 50 applicants are reviewed for admission to the graduate program. This year the graduates tend to be more mature than those found in other departments, Rippon says, noting that this is helpful. The students are more focused, he says, although that wasn't the only factor in choosing them for admission.
"Every spring [the faculty] get together and look at their slides. That's what counts -- their work," Rippon says.
In the middle of the interview with Rippon an undergraduate student comes up with a question about how to split a very large piece of pine, upon which a cartoon is drawn for an emerging sculptural figure. "We'll put it on the band saw," Rippon says.
"But that'll take two people, and it might hurt the saw," the student says, eyes wide with trepidation.
"Well, it might heat up the blade, but you've got to solve the problem," Rippon says with a smile. The student leaves to set up the saw, obviously shaken but excited.
"Art is problem solving, and that's what we're here to teach the students. We're finding that students from other fields who've taken classes in fine arts say that the art classes have helped them be creative thinkers. So art can inform life, as well as the other way around."
UM's School of Fine Arts was established in 1954, in the middle of the art explosion that defined the United States as a world leader in the visual arts. UM's new art school was hip to this explosion, and ever since it has been an important and vital aspect to the school's curriculum.
Offering both liberal arts degrees and studio emphasis degrees, the Fine Arts school became a NASAD (National Association of Schools of Art and Design) accredited institution in 1988. Becoming part of NASAD was both an honor and a challenge. The association insists on many stipulations, including safety standards, credential prerequisites and studio facilities made available to students.
There was a time that only the big art schools like Chicago Art Institute and San Francisco Art Institute could meet the NASAD standards. With smaller schools such as UM moving to the fore, the work being produced reflects the rigor expected of such accreditation. But according to faculty, there has been no move toward mainstreaming the work students are doing.
Kathrin Mallory, director of the UM Visual Arts Gallery, explains: "There's not a look to the work, because there are individual approaches. But they do influence one another. I love the fact that they're all so supportive of one another. They don't seem to have that unhealthy competitive edge you find in some graduate programs."
Mallory is currently setting up four thesis shows for the MFA graduates, scheduled for November and December. The graduate shows displayed this fall include Dyna Kuehnle's cast bronze sculpture, Trisha Kyner's and Mike Kurz's ceramic sculpture, and Deb Peabody's paintings.
Mary Anne Bonjorni teaches painting, and recognizes in the students a high level of sophistication about media and its history. She says, "I see painters, among these students, who are actively involved with the physical act of painting. They are involved with the paint itself.
"This grad school epitomizes the postmodern milieu," Bonjorni continues. "These students are very different from one another stylistically, yet conceptually they are interested in similar subjects, like the environment, the spirit, and how we think.
"But there is no shtick. It's not a school with a rule that painting must look like this or sculpture looks like that."
Bonjorni says she makes a conscious effort to not push her students to paint a certain way, so that there is not a patent type of painting that comes out of her classes. She insists that she does not teach this diversity, but instead, allows it to unfold.
"I try very hard to form the right questions," she says. "I see myself as being here to help the students paint their paintings more efficiently. You paint what's important to you."
"If a person gets in the habit of attending these shows and watch-ing the level of transcendence that these people have achieved, they'll be amazed."
Though UM doesn't have a pre-defined style, the work from its graduates do follow, according to gallery director Mallory, an aesthetic sensibility common to the Northwest. "A sense of place is so important to each person's work," she says. "Here we have a sense of expanse combined with a sense of privacy, and the Northwest light always works into the artists' pieces."
Mallory points out that the isolation here helps the artists to find their own paths, and that they feel strongly about the paths they've chosen. "It's not only the beauty of the environment that enters the work," she says, "but also the attitude of preserving the environment. You'll find activist painting and sculpture among these artists."
One exciting aspect to the MFA program, for Bonjorni, is when the students break through to new ground. "When you see somebody click on to something," she says, "it's almost a physiological click, and they break through into a whole different realm -- but then again they may wake up the next day and say, 'That's not it at all!'"
MFA candidate Bev Peabody works on a canvas in preparation
for her upcoming show. Photo by Jeff Powers.
Oh whither has Missoula's once-lively theater scene gone? For the first time in years, the town that made its reputation as the cultural Mecca of the Big Sky state has almost no independent stage offerings on the boards for the fall season.
Many chalk this nonevent up to the natural ebb and flow of creative endeavors, which tends to result in equal parts from lack of audience interest as well as lack of inspiration. Others point to the ever-increasing cost of living, which has left all but the most determined hunger artists with little choice but to head to Seattle or Minneapolis, where it's easier to earn a buck on stage productions.
Of course, there's still theater to be had in Missoula. But with the departure of Keith Buckley's New Prospects company, the relative quiet of the fringe Blue Moon Beggars, and the realignment of the 11-year-old Montana Players management, the pickings seem pretty slim compared to just a couple of years ago.
Most of the pros and semi-pros, who have long committed themselves to providing stage craft in Missoula, remark that while this year's independent theater seems to be in recession, there is little reason to despair. Uniformly, they appear confident that Missoula's embarrassment of riches will return after actors and directors get a chance to rest up.
The pressure, it appears, of running a company on almost no budget, in the face of ongoing challenges -- ranging from finding rehearsal space to competing with the home-video market -- just wore a lot of artists down. So instead of a little Sam Shephard, or maybe something by Wendy Wasserstein and a couple of smaller, avant-garde offerings, theater goers locally will have to content themselves with an off-beat performance here, a Young Rep production there and whatever the University of Montana has come up with to fill the hole.
"You get tired," admits Stacey Gordon, a musical-comedy specialist who has acted with everybody in town. "You just get to a place where you burn out, where you can't do it anymore."
Gordon got her start, in fact, years ago as part of the anachronistic Virginia City Players, and then progressed to more serious theater as well. In recent years, she appeared in the New Prospects' production of the Brian Friel's Faith Healer along with company founder Buckley and Chris Evans. This weekend she'll partake in the Big Night Benefit for the Five Rivers Festival of Film.
In addition to the rigors of performing, as well as acting as ad hoc set and costume designers and theater administrators, Gordon says, independent theater producers, directors and actors constantly have to try a curry audience interest -- often in the face of tepid reviews. "One voice says they don't like a show, and they can ruin a company," she opines. "Although, I've seen it the other way, where a show gets a good review and nobody goes."
Faith Healer was an artistic triumph, but the 1995 production played to 10-member audiences. The show's troubles were blamed on competition from sporting events and other theater productions. Buckley left town a year and half ago, to try and make a go of it with New Prospects in California. One of the main organizers behind Blue Moon Beggars, Margaret Baldwin, also left town about a year ago to pursue other opportunities. While many of the players are still in town, the fringe troupe has yet to recover.
Russ Banham, who currently serves as the artistic director of Montana Players, says his company's current state of inactivity stems from a couple of disappointments -- as well as shrinking funds. The last production the Players did was Keely and Du, a play about abortion he calls "an artistic risk."
When that show lost money, Banham says -- to the tune of nearly four grand -- the whole troupe had to reexamine its priorities. The ensuing low spirits were compounded by an actor's illness which prevented the Players from doing Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and a flap between the Players, the Missoula Children's Theatre and the UM-affiliated Montana Rep.
An article in the Missoulian last year, Banham and others say, further ruffled the bigger companies' feathers due to a misunderstanding over who exactly was professional around town -- and what that meant. The upshot was a gut-check for the Players, which lost founding member and then-executive director Brian Sanky and others.
Banham adds that fund-raising challenges as well as the personal finances of many troupe members finally forced the current reorganization. "There's a real difficulty raising money," he says. "Rents have gone through the roof, and trained theater people can no longer afford to live in Missoula."
Jim Caron, meanwhile, who runs the MCT, says that it's nearly impossible to turn a buck in Missoula as a theater company. While his group has had success in funding its new million-plus dollar theater facility, Caron says, the traveling children's theater -- one of the largest and most successful in the nation -- accounts for nearly 85 percent of the revenues earned by MCT.
The community theater, he adds -- which provides light fare in the repertory vein -- needs to be subsidized by traveling projects. As for the 28-year-old MCT's longevity, Caron chalks it up to the fact that performers and designers get paid, which means when energy runs low, there's still a reason to keep at it.
Playwright and performance artist Erin Lindberg, who worked for a spell with Blue Moon Beggars, is quick to point out that the "ebb and flow" of energy is natural. People put a lot of effort into projects they care about, she notes, and the need for down time is part of the process -- especially when one has to come up with cash for each production.
"The heart keeps beating," Lindberg says, "but it's hard to keep the energy going."
Unlike many of her peers, Lindberg looks to the nontraditional venues -- offbeat and unique performance opportunities -- to shore up Missoula's independent theater. Community events such as First Night and the Day of the Dead, she says, can provide small-scale productions with a built-in audience. In the case of First Night, she adds, artists even get paid a little.
In the meantime, UM -- largely under the guidance of Greg Johnson -- is stepping into the serious hole that's been left in terms of adult contemporary theater by the lack of independent troupes performing this fall. The drama/dance department is kicking off its season with a pair of academically-minded works, The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco and Oleanna by David Mamet.
Johnson says that without the independent theaters paving the way, Missoula audiences might not be up for such challenging fare as the Mamet two-act play about a professor and student who get entangled in an extremely transgressive relationship. He has hope, however, that these shows and the other contemporary, grown-up works performed this year will mark a new dawn for such productions.
In fact, one might say Johnson is banking on the preparedness of local audiences for serious theater. In addition to the UM work he's doing, Johnson has also brought the Young Rep back under his auspices. With Chris Evans' help, he says the semi-independent group can make a go of its own. Evans will kick off the season with Pounding Nails into the Floor with My Forehead by Eric Bogosian this October.
As for the apparent hibernation of other independents around town, Johnson remains philosophical: "Theater companies need to sit back and double-check sometimes. That's what we did here at the university. We did Shakespeare and we were going to do a musical, but we felt this town was ready for some thought-provoking, intellectual material.
"There really is a strong audience here for 'think' theater."
Montana Players' Russ Banham says he thinks so as well, and expects that come the winter, when he and his colleagues get their act in gear, the well-known Crimes of the Heart should draw audiences in like moths to the proverbial flame Even MCT's Caron seems intent on providing more serious patrons with theater that will entice them. To that end, he anticipates many will enjoy the forth-coming premiere of a theatrical adaptation of Hanneke Ipisch's Sky, which should find its way to the stage next spring.
Caron adds that once the new building is finished, he also hopes to allow Missoula's independents with a performance space they can afford. "In many ways," he says, "this is a chance to give back to the community."