A night out of town 

Uncovering theater’s roots in Virginia City

It’s Saturday night at The Bale of Hay Saloon in Virginia City. A man in an 1860s-era top hat, waistcoat and breeches shares a table with a woman wearing a hoop skirt, petticoat and bodice—her parasol, necessary protection against the daytime sun, leans in a corner next to a brass spittoon. Sharing their table is a woman clad in a Patagonia fleece and Chaco sandals and a pony-tailed biker with faded tattoos on his arms. As the band plays Johnny Cash, this eclectic foursome sings along with the people at the table next to them, an attractive group of mostly Missoula-based actors who call Virginia City their home this summer. They are The Illustrious Virginia City Players.

Located about 80 miles from the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, Virginia City is a three-hour drive from Missoula. The town is a living museum, a place where people dress up in period costume to live out an Old West fantasy, if only for the weekend. A relic of the Gold Rush era—Virginia City once boasted a population of 10,000, and an estimated $30 million in gold was extracted during the first year of mining—the town started to decay when the resources ran dry in the 1920s. By the 1940s, most of the city had badly deteriorated when Charles Bovey, heir to the Gold Medal Flour fortune, bought large parts of the area and began restoring the buildings. The Bovey family owned Virginia City until 1997 when they sold it to the state of Montana, which maintains its historical feel today.

It is to this colorful, nostalgic backdrop that Greg Johnson, artistic director of the Montana Repertory Theatre, in Missoula, brings his lifetime of acting and directing expertise. Johnson and fellow Missoulian Stacey Gordon are co-artistic and producing directors of The Illustrious Virginia City Players, a theater company performing Victorian melodrama in the Virginia City Opera House. Johnson has been visiting Virginia City over the last 10 years to watch some of his UM students perform during the summer. Gordon, a Helena native and MSU alumna, says she “grew up around theater,” spending her summers in Bigfork watching shows at the Bigfork Summer Playhouse. She first came to Virginia City in the summer of 1985 when she was hired as an actor.

The state of Montana owns the Opera House and leases it for five-year intervals, so when Gordon heard that the lease was available again last year, she contacted Johnson and the two decided to make an offer. Both Gordon and Johnson say they are attracted to the audience-friendly nature of the melodrama style and are passionate about preserving and respecting the form.

“It’s an opportunity for local Missoula actors and designers to work in the summer and gain experience,” says Johnson.

This season The Players are performing their shows in repertory fashion for the first time in the theater’s 56-year history. This means that the three shows, The Moonstone, Sweeney Todd, and The Canterville Ghost, are performed alternately in rotation, an arrangement that gives audiences the chance for repeat visits without having to see the same show twice.

In addition to the main melodrama performances (think deliciously overwrought acting; when someone’s sad they make a big, pouty-lipped face), the actors perform vaudeville variety acts at the conclusion of each show. The vaudeville is comprised of a series of skits that include musical numbers, song and dance, and plenty of “jazz-hands”—it’s part Muppet Show, part Prairie Home Companion, with just a dash of Laugh-In. The two styles—melodrama and vaudeville—represent the roots of theater, and seem perfectly set among the Opera House’s rough, stone walls and exposed wood beams.

Accompanying the actors throughout the performances is Dave Calendine on the Marquette Cremona Photoplayer. The instrument is a sort of air-powered one-man-band complete with xylophone and drums—originally designed to accompany silent films—that came with the Opera House. Gordon searched the Internet for someone who could play the contraption and came across Calendine at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Calendine jumped at the chance to play the unique instrument, one of only two in the world still being used in a theater setting.

For the actors, performing in repertory means working a grueling seven days a week, two shows a day. They have no day off for six weeks. Given the physical nature of the performances, the elaborate costumes and the hot lights, they are exhausted—happy, but utterly beat.

When Missoula actor Steve “Big Daddy” Hodgson walks into the saloon after the show, his six-foot-seven frame towers above the crowd. There are some kids on vacation from Havre who have been tracking down the actors as they enter the saloon, programs in hand, asking for autographs.

Hodgson is clearly tired from the day’s performances, but he lights up when the kids surround him, happily talking and signing their programs. When asked what draws him here, he answers that he loves the challenge.

“It’s something I haven’t done anywhere else,” he says. “It is the opposite of a reality show.”

Hodgson’s sentiment is echoed by many of the other players as well. Missoula actor Nathaniel Peterson says simply, “I love it here. It’s a fun and challenging atmosphere for an actor to perform in.”

It’s the atmosphere that has Johnson excited about the future of The Illustrious Virginia City Players, old-style theater in an old-style town, with a dose of youthful vigor.

“Theater is coming around to the theatrical again,” Johnson says. “We recognize the form, but it still has a new feel.”

The Illustrious Virginia City Players perform seven days a week at the historic Opera House through Monday, Sept. 5. Call 1-800-829-2969.

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