The best jobs in town 

This week, more than 3,500 students from the University of Montana will graduate—and wish they were stepping into one of these perfect gigs

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That might sound like the delusional lifestyle of an eccentric, but in the world of community theater it's just another day in the costume and props room. Longtime Missoula Children's Theatre and Community Theatre costume designer Linda Muth has been dressing actors for the stage since 1991. She's in charge of shopping for fabric and overseeing the construction and fittings, as well as any other aspect of costuming that goes into community productions. Muth works alongside props master Lesley Washburn, who started at MCT in 2006. Washburn goes by the "three Bs" rule—borrow, buy or build—to make sure she gets all the books, picture frames, lamps, umbrellas and bigger set pieces, like furniture and drapes, that make a staged production's atmosphere complete. Both Washburn and Muth work full-time and say they make a wage that's "very livable" for Missoula as part of an organization with a $5.5 million annual budget. And they're supported by a handful of staff who help make their creative visions come true.

"I have a wonderful staff who helps if I get stuck in my head about something," Muth says.

Talking with Washburn about her approach to props brings to mind a problem solver like MacGyver. For MCT's production of Footloose last year, she had to create the look of a school gymnasium that had been built decades ago. The time period required all the details, even the lights, look antiquated.

"I went to the Dollar Store and by finding the right shapes, like a little trash basket and a dip bowl, I was able to make a light that looks like something from a gymnasium from the '60s," she says.

In other instances she's had to be less MacGyver and more experimental artist.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"If a set-designer wants a painting that looks like a Pollock on the wall, then I'll maybe look up some Pollocks and I'll slap some paint together and stick it in a frame," she says, laughing. "No one will ever accuse me of being a true forger of art, but I'm able to do things like that in this job."

Despite their whimsical veneers, these behind-the-scenes jobs are not for the laid-back daydreamer. There's pressure to be precise, especially during a play's run. In a hallway behind the stage at the MCT Center for Performing Arts, a props table is stacked with shelves meticulously labeled for each set of items. The beer steins, for instance, are stacked together for the tavern scenes in the recent production of Les Misérables. Across from the props, Muth's costumes are carefully divided into vests and peasant dresses, hats and other accessories. Everything must be in place for when actors make their entrance on stage; there's little room for error.

Both women also do work on the children's theater productions, specifically the touring shows where MCT staff take props and costumes on the road to communities across the nation. For those shows Washburn sews the sets, which are made from fabric so they can break down easily.

"We've got one right now, Rapunzel, with a big tower which has giant hula hoops and uprights," Washburn says. "You take some bolts apart and the whole thing collapses down and it can all fit into a truck."

The children's shows are almost more challenging than the adult community productions. Props have to be made to withstand different temperature conditions and transportation, not to mention handling by youngsters. The other difficulty is that most community theater involves realistic fashions, but children's shows require a level of absurdity.

"As far as designing is concerned, it's very fun to research the Renaissance or the French Revolution," Muth says, "but then when the director comes and tells you that the 5- to 7-year-olds are going to be clouds, you say, 'How am I going to make a small child look like a cloud? Or a mosquito?'"

The Secret Garden was an especially tough task when Muth was told she had to dress children as a dead garden that comes to life on stage. "We tried a couple of different permutations before we came up with something that was actually going to work," she says. In the end, she made the kids brown capes with dead leaves that could flip over to reveal green and flowery fauna underneath.

Muth and Washburn see those difficult obstacles as the good kind of challenge that requires creativity. The payoff is sweet, usually involving the sight of some little kid dressed as a cloud waving proudly to her family in the audience (even when she was told not to wave at the audience.)

"It is a lot of fun," Washburn says. "I get to try new things—and sometimes they fail. But I consider myself very lucky to be able to have in Missoula a stable job that's creative. I find myself very very fortunate."

Erika Fredrickson




Don Gisselbeck

Age: 59

Occupation: Mechanic

Places of work: The Trail Head, Bike Doctor, Adventure Cycling

Salary: $15,000

One of the biggest prerequisites for a prime Missoula job involves having the flexibility to duck away on gorgeous powder days in the winter or on bluebird afternoons in the summer. Few locals have that schedule dialed in as well as Don Gisselbeck, who's managed to carve out a niche in two of Missoula's main recreation pursuits.

Gisselbeck, 59, runs the ski shop for The Trail Head in winter and turns wrenches for the Bike Doctor in summer. He also works the occasional junket as the mechanic for multi-day Adventure Cycling trips. But a life of grease and gears wasn't his first choice of work; he calls himself a "recovering teacher."

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