In Missoula, $28,000 would make for a pretty decent yearly salary. It would also more than cover what Kristopher Monson pays for yearly tuition at the University of Montana, where he’s designed his own master’s program in theater management. But starting this weekend, $28,000 is also the break-even point for Monson and his K-Mo Productions company, which is producing a two-week run of the campy and cautionary marijuana musical Reefer Madness at Missoula’s historic Wilma Theatre. The costs of a production this size stack up quickly: eight nights at the Wilma, one of the city’s largest venues with a capacity of 1,062, are $8,000; royalties for the rights to the play are more than $3,100; advertising is more than $2,500; supplies—for everything from costumes to paint for the set—add up to more than $5,500; and payments for the 27-person cast and crew make up the difference. Success is priceless, of course, but the investment is a big enough gamble for the ambitious local promoter that more than a few observers can’t help but wonder: is he high?
“I know there really is a lot of risk involved and no safety nets, but it’s a calculated risk,” says Monson, sitting in the basement of the Wilma before a recent rehearsal. “I’ve had to keep my overhead low in spite of the fact that I think this is a musical that will go over pretty well in Missoula—it’s funny and campy and hilarious and something that the other theater companies might not produce.”
Monson goes on to list exactly how he’s tried to position this theatrical production to succeed in Missoula’s sometimes finicky entertainment market: it’s the perfect time of year, because college students have just returned to campus; the Wilma’s downtown location and status as Missoula’s favorite theater will serve as a draw; despite the large investment, ticket prices ($14/$12 students) are in line with a typical UM production; the eight-show run has been compressed to three high-traffic days—Thursday, Friday and Saturday—over two weekends; buzz-worthy midnight showings on Saturdays have been added, and are currently drawing the highest-volume advance ticket sales; and a grassroots promotional effort has been in full motion for two weeks.
“I think it’s a risk worth taking,” says Monson, who’ll have to cover any shortfall out of his own pocket. “We put a lot of time into thinking about what we needed to make this successful, and I think we’ve planned for what will be a pretty special entertainment production.”
The scope of the show may be large, but Monson has the track record to pull it off. The 27-year-old promoter was born in Deer Lodge and moved to Sheridan, Wyo., for most of his childhood before returning to Montana as an undergraduate at UM. During his time studying political science, Monson took over as special events director of the Lambda Alliance, an on-campus group dedicated to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. When Monson started with Lambda, he says the group’s social events drew approximately 30 people. By the time he graduated in 2003, attendance at Lambda parties was averaging between 800 and 900 during the school year.
“I kept asking people what they would like to see,” says Monson, who helped Lambda bring comedian Margaret Cho to the Wilma in 2002. “When I moved the parties down [to the Wilma’s Red Light Lounge and Green Room] we were able to offer three different rooms: the Top 40 dance floor, the techno/house dance floor and then we opened the lounge for drag queen performances. It turned into much more of an event than just a party.”
Monson created K-Mo Productions when he graduated and continued to promote local events. To maintain the momentum he’d generated through Lambda, Monson initially focused on thematic parties, including a back-to-school bash, Drag Idol and a Halloween Dance; the latter drew 1,042 people in 2005. He’s also hosted two consecutive Queer Proms, events that have become so popular they draw from throughout the state. That sort of success has built Monson a solid reputation not only with Missoula partygoers, but also with local vendors.
“I wish there were more promoters like him,” says Bill Emerson, director of the Wilma, where Monson holds most of his events. “He’s very easy to work with, up front about everything, and if there are ever any questions we can always sort them out in short order.”
Despite the record of success, it was Monson’s only flop that probably received the most attention. Last summer he hosted Missoula’s first-ever foam party—an event where an industrial foam-making machine fills a 1,000-square-foot area 10 feet deep for four straight hours, accompanied by a DJ. The bash received plenty of pre-suds attention, but a last-second venue change and a bad break with the weather (windy, overcast and 70 degrees in mid-July) kept crowds away.
“The foam party cost about $5,000, which was about the largest risk I had up until that point,” Monson says. “It was a financial loss for me, but I still feel like I learned a lot for the next time I host something with foam.”
That sort of resolve has carried over to Monson’s preparation for Reefer Madness. Theatrical productions are a relatively new endeavor for him—in 2004 and 2005 he produced brief runs of work by his friend, playwright Laramie Dean. Those plays were successful, but hardly at the level of Monson’s parties. This summer, Monson set his sights exclusively on theater, first producing an excellent version of Sight Unseen at UM’s Masquer Theatre. The event broke even, and Monson views it as the perfect building block to the upcoming musical.
“The attendance wasn’t what we expected, but we still broke even,” he says, noting that the run was hurt by slow Tuesday and Wednesday shows. “We were able to build a track record of credibility for professional, entertaining productions. In that sense that was a big success, and a great tutorial building up to a bigger production.”
Less than a week before that bigger production’s opening night, Monson is eerily calm. He says preproduction for Reefer Madness has been smooth and that pre-sales are starting to pick up through his company’s website (kmoproductions.net). Monson says he’s nervous, but he hardly shows it.
“I don’t get stressed out a lot,” he says. “I’m more excited. The risk involved makes me a little uneasy, just because the unknown can be a little nerve-racking sometimes. But I’ve come to learn there’s a point when I’ve done all I can and the show just needs to happen.”
See calendar for exact showtimes and ticket information.