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Alpine Theatre Project generates a buzz

In some ways, theater in western Montana is turning upside down. Take, for example, a world premiere adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, slated for production by the Alpine Theatre Project in Whitefish as part of the burgeoning company’s newly released 2008 summer schedule. In the new version, Prospero, the Duke of Milan and magician protagonist, is a woman. Ariel, the male sprite who loyally protects Prospero, is a 1950s-style Stepford housewife. And there’s a hermaphrodite among the characters.

But the re-imagined roles aren’t even the biggest surprise of this adaptation, titled The Other Side of the Island. That honor goes to the fact that the play’s co-authors, Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis and her award-winning actor husband, Louis Zorich, chose ATP for their production’s coveted debut. Both will also star in the show.

“[Dukakis] had received a workshop at a pretty prestigious theater out east called the Long Wharf Theatre, in Connecticut,” explains Luke Walrath, one of three founding members of the 4-year-old ATP. “But she said she was really interested in seeing it on stage, an actual production, and she wanted to do it somewhere where she didn’t feel the pressure of big city critics. And she came to us.”

“We thought for about three seconds,” adds his wife and fellow founder, Betsi Morrison. “It was a pretty easy call.”

Once considered a regional afterthought compared to Missoula’s more established theater scene—rooted in reputable touring companies such as the Montana Repertory Theatre and Missoula Children’s Theatre—ATP is quickly carving its own niche and generating national buzz. The key has been an influx of world premiers featuring big-name talent to bolster a still-growing seasonal slate. In addition to Dukakis’ play, ATP’s summer schedule includes “An Evening With Henry Winkler,” with The Fonz becoming just the latest star to partake in the company’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio”-like interview series. This follows last year’s four-show summer season, which was highlighted by the world premier of John Lithgow’s experimental one-man show, A Story About A Story. Lithgow (“3rd Rock from the Sun,” Terms of Endearment) is now set to open a new version of that production at New York City’s Lincoln Center beginning in April. 

“We were so lucky that all of [these premieres] just happened by chance,” says Morrison. “Yes, it’s a big leap for us. Every year we feel like we’ve barely got the tiger by the tail.”

The celebrity pipeline was first established when Morrison, Walrath and third founder David Ackroyd—each an accomplished Broadway, stage and/or screen actor—first started the company. They created an honorary board of directors comprised of the most famous personalities they’d worked with over the years, including Winkler, Dukakis, Zorich, Lithgow, Robert Goulet (who has since passed away) and others. At first, the move was mostly to assist in fundraising efforts for the fledgling company, with stars simply lending a name to letterhead. But by their second season in 2006, members of the Honorary Board were inquiring about how to get more involved—and, specifically, how to appear on ATP’s stage. That’s when Lithgow was tapped for the debut of “An Evening With…”

“It’s one of the reasons we left the business in New York, because we lost that passion of doing theater,” says Walrath, who performed in the revival of 42nd Street on Broadway before moving to Whitefish in 2002. “We wanted to create an environment here where everyone who works with us is reintroduced to the reasons we all got into this in the first place. I think that idea started to resonate with our honorary board members.”

With the help of their board, ATP has successfully raised the bar every year since its inception. The company reports more than 400 current subscribers, a number that’s doubled from every previous year, and their schedule has ballooned to four summer shows, an annual Christmas concert, a collaborative performance with the Glacier Symphony (they staged West Side Story in January) and an after-school outreach program. This year the equity company has also moved most of its shows to a new, 450-seat proscenium theater at Whitefish Middle School, a 100-seat increase from the O’Shaughnessy Center. But even as they prepare for this summer—Morrison recently returned from casting auditions in New York City—the company acknowledges its challenge will be in maintaining the early momentum into the future. 

“We’ve always held the belief that no one gets excited by the status quo and in order to remain a vibrant and relevant company we constantly have to outdo what we just did,” says Walrath. “We never really stop. I think that’s why we called ourselves the Alpine Theatre Project, because we always felt this was an ongoing process—we’re never going to really arrive. I can tell you we’re honestly still thinking the same way.”

The Alpine Theatre Project’s newly announced 2008 summer season debuts with The Full Monty in July and concludes in August with The Other Side of the Island. More information, including ticket information, is available at alpinetheatreproject.org or by calling 406-862-SHOW.
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