2012 Arts in review 

Even in a blizzard, Ringing Out is a victory for Missoula theater

It's always odd to look back and see how individual events—whether they be small or dramatic—can be summed up to characterize an entire year. In the Missoula arts scene, a lot has happened in 2012. In typical cyclical fashion, show venues have disappeared and newer ones have surfaced. New books and films have needled their ways into our psyches and made us think about politics and money and love. Here we give you the lowdown on the most memorable moments our arts writers experienced this year, plus a list of the biggest events that impacted the arts community.

There was a snow storm in January that turned the valley into what looked like a pixelated black and white film. Going out in it required dedication—bundling up, window scraping, heat blasting in the car, careful maneuvering down snow-clogged streets. Traffic lights glowed dimly in the white, wind-whipped air. There were plenty of bars to visit, but this night I made my way to the Crystal Theatre to watch Ringing Out, a post-apocalyptic play focused on a bomb shelter and Christmas (though the holidays were already over). I had spent my holiday in balmy, sleepy Jacksonville, Fla., with in-laws, which was a fun change from my usual wintry holiday season. But now, post-season, packing into the theater with a large group of ruddy-faced people in layers of coats, scarves and hats, with Christmas lights still up around town, with so much snow and ice outside, with us drinking wine inside—ah! This felt like the holidays. Despite extreme conditions, the play sold out and late-arriving theater-goers were turned away at the door. It felt like a victory.

Ringing Out, written by Missoula writer Josh Wagner and directed by Rebecca Schaffer, was moving. I'd already seen a dress rehearsal of it, but this time everything—props and set—was in order. The story is about three people who end up in a bunker after the world ends, and a stranger who changes their lives. It's about being afraid of a changing world, and for good reason. But also it's about how being afraid keeps you from imagining the future.

During the show, the audience warmed. The ice melted underneath our boots. We laughed. We gasped.

click to enlarge Ringing out
  • Ringing out

Wagner's piece proved that we have some pretty amazing writers in this town who can create a mood and an imaginative story. That night, in particular, was a perfect storm of talent and weather that made it even more thrilling. Due to its popularity, Ringing Out was extended five more days.

The same phenomenon happened just last week when Ringing Out's director, Schaffer, put on Crime in a Madhouse, a horror play at the Zootown Arts Community Center basement. For that production, audiences swapped their winter jackets for lab coats and sipped on absinthe while actors created a foreboding experience involving cackling crones and eye gouging—all done artfully, in a way that would have made Edward Gorey grin.

In our year-end-review of 2011, the Indy reported that the Montana Actors' Theatre, a professional theater company that often staged edgy, artful plays, as well as the occasional classic, had gone on hiatus. It was sad to think that we'd lost a group that was so committed to experimental theater. Over the course of 2012, though, I've enjoyed a variety of plays from Montana Rep and the University of Montana's School of Theater and Dance. And in MAT's absence, we've had other independent theater artists fill the void. Amy Martin's work-in-progress, Reserve and Green, was a totally engaging post-apocalypic musical to behold, and the Missoula Actors' Guild's production of Waiting for Godot exceeded all expectations with its handful of highly amusing actors.

Funny enough, a lot of these productions hinted at the end of the world, but not in a depressing way. Ringing Out, as chilling and uncomfortable as it could sometimes be, was also about the day-to-day things we should be grateful for. I write this year-in-review piece on Dec. 21, the day the world is supposed to end. If it does, well, we've done a good job of making our final year a great one, right? But it won't end. I'm looking forward to another year of this kind of powerful theater—the kind that compels us to go outside and have fun, despite what the weather brings.

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