Writers reunited 

Familiar talents headline the Colony

Former Missoula playwright and New Orleans native Barret O’Brien first staged Midnight in the Marigny in 2000 and, as he remembers it now, “it was more like a workshop production” than a formal debut. Must’ve been some workshop. The play, about four 20-something residents of a neighborly New Orleans district who organize a Boston Tea Party-like raid on an incoming Starbucks, was incredibly well-received in spite of O’Brien’s insistence that it still needed work: Marigny was critically acclaimed by the New Orleans media and nominated for three Big Easy awards later that year.

Since that successful debut, however, the script has mostly collected dust, taking a backseat to new and emerging projects, such as O’Brien’s immensely successful Missoula plays, 2005’s Eating Round the Bruise and last year’s Breach. That is, until a few weeks ago when a perfect storm of Missoula-based connections led O’Brien back to Midnight in the Marigny and, with the start of the Colony, the Montana Repertory Theatre’s annual midsummer writing workshop, O’Brien’s first return trip to the Garden City since he left a year ago.

“I just put Marigny aside and haven’t touched it since,” says O’Brien, who recently finished his first year at Yale University’s School of Drama. “Then Kara-Lynn and I picked up the idea of doing a show together and that made me take it off the shelf and say, ‘Let’s see what this old rusty wheel has to offer.’”

Thus starts a series of small-worldisms that epitomize the Colony’s burgeoning community: Kara-Lynn Vaeni is an accomplished New York City director and Yale alum who also happened to direct The Rep’s 2006 touring production of The Trip to Bountiful, in which O’Brien starred. When Vaeni and O’Brien reconnected in Connecticut, they agreed to travel back to the Colony and work together again. In the process, they recruited actress Heather Benton, who also appeared in Bountiful, to attend the Missoula workshop. All three will have a hand in putting on a re-staged, and possibly updated, version of Midnight in the Marigny Monday, June 25, at 8 p.m.

“One of my big priorities was getting back to the Colony this summer because of this: building a team and the relationships that are starting to grow,” says O’Brien, who’s participating for the third straight year. “I don’t know, I just feel there’s something special about the time we spend there.”

O’Brien’s return is just one of the success stories the Colony can tout this year. Headed by The Rep’s artistic director, Greg Johnson, and playwright-in-residence Roger Hedden (Hi-Life, Sleep With Me), the workshop’s increasingly noteworthy alumni are finding more prominent venues for their work. For example, long-time Colony attendee Ron Fitzgerald was scheduled to present a new play this year, but had to cancel at the last minute when the popular Showtime series “Weeds” hired him as a writer for its third season.

“That is why we do this,” says Johnson. “Ron is a perfect example. He’s not coming, and of course we’re going to miss him. But this is a wonderful opportunity. Instead of working with him we’ll be celebrating him. That’s what this community has been about—helping great writers and making great writers.”

The Colony is a combination of master classes and directed readings, all of which are open to the public. And while writers, actors and directors come to hone their craft and talk shop (post-reading bar gatherings are notoriously popular), audiences get the opportunity to witness the creative process, offer constructive feedback and discover the next potential blockbuster.

Aside from O’Brien’s Marigny, this year’s schedule highlights include a new one-act play by Hedden (Monday, June 25, 3 p.m.); Jerry Manning from the Seattle Repertory Theatre directing Spontaneous Spatula written by Colony regular Jim Peterson (Tuesday, June 26, 3 p.m.); and Out of the Woods, a play by Missoula writers/filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith (The Slaughter Rule), who are making their Colony debut (Friday, June 29, 8 p.m.). In addition to these readings, the Colony is also adding a new wrinkle: a Young Writers Weekend, showcasing seven local playwrights, will close the last two days of the workshop.

“This is something new, and the reason we’re starting it is that we’re always looking to bring new energy and ideas into what we do,” says Johnson, who helped choose the playwrights from area high school submissions and local applicants. Incidentally, one of the “young” writers is Alan Goddard, who is in his late 60s.

Whether for young writers or veterans, the Colony is a rare opportunity to experiment with and test unfinished or updated work, and that’s an opportunity the participants cherish. O’Brien, for instance, is reviving Marigny to see how a pre-Katrina play about the spirit of New Orleans stands the test of time. He’s unsure whether he’ll rewrite sections before the reading or simply react to how it’s received at the Colony.

“That’s really what I want to work on at the Colony—seeing how much of the actual writing of a play needs to change in order to emulate where the city is now,” he says. “That’s something Kara-Lynn and I are working on now, and we’ll work on it more there…We may want to do something with this play again, produce it later next year, but we’re starting here first.”

The Colony begins Saturday, June 23, and continues through Sunday, July 1, at the University of Montana’s Montana Theatre in the PARTV Center. For a full schedule, visit www.montanarep.org. $5 afternoon readings/$10 evening readings/$50 all-access pass.
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