Enter stage right 

Montana Actors’ Theatre takes on local scene

Two weeks before the opening of Macbeth, the Montana Actors’ Theatre (MAT) lost its seamstress, its music section and a box full of beards.

“They say Macbeth is cursed and…it is,” says Grant Olson, MAT’s vice president and the director of Macbeth. “Anything technical that could go wrong, did. I had a music composer…and he had found instrumentalists but something came up in their schedule…Two weeks ago! I’m surprised I survived these last two weeks. One of the lines from Macbeth is: ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep.’ And it’s very appropriate.”

But Olson admits that the Macbeth curse—which states that bad things happen if you utter the title in a theater unless, of course, it’s in one of your lines—may have less to do with the chaos than the fact that the Havre-based company is just getting its bearings in Missoula. Though MAT has been around for 15 years, it only just recently opened its satellite company here. Jay Pyette, MAT’s president and a former drama teacher at Havre High, began building the company with the help of Olson. About the time they put on Hamlet, the theater department at Havre’s Montana State University-Northern shut down and MAT was there to take its place.

Like the Montana Rep at the University of Montana-Missoula, MAT is a resident company for MSU-N with professional status. Actors and techs get paid, which is something Olson says he hopes will keep quality drama professionals graduating from both MSU-N and UM working in state.

This past summer at the Crystal Theatre, MAT put on its first two shows in Missoula, ART and Rugburns, both of which featured small casts. Macbeth, however, requires 20 actors, not to mention an elaborate stage set and props Olson says that with Jesus Christ Superstar and Coyote on a Fence currently in production at Missoula Children’s Theatre (MCT) and UM, respectively, local male actors were a bit scarce—and he needed 16 men.

But for the most part it was his props, set and costumes that posed an issue. Olson’s usual Havre sword maker had been summoned elsewhere to make wind turbines, and since he’s now based in Missoula he couldn’t call on the Drama 109 class from MSU-N that usually builds MAT’s sets. Olson’s challenge was in finding local resources equivalent to his Havre connections, and that became even more important when, two weeks before Macbeth’s opening, his box of stage beards still hadn’t arrived, the instrumentalists fell through and, to top it all off, his Havre seamstress had to take a personal leave from the project. She had been sewing medieval tunics, dresses, breeches and coats, and creating the chain mail armor and period boots.

“I think she was planning on getting them done,” Olson says, “and then she called up and said, ‘It’s too big and too many things have happened. Can you find somebody else?’”

Olson kicked into triage mode. MCT’s T.J. Jenson ended up building the swords and provided last-minute beards. One Macbeth actor with a smaller role took over creating the musical score; she plays drums throughout most of the performance. An actor from MCT helped Olson sew the rest of the costumes.

“I’m just remembering the first shows we did in Havre where I was sitting on a sewing machine and Jay was out building the set,” Olson says. “And then, here I am, after several years where I haven’t had to do that, doing it again. It was fun to be back on the sewing machine.”

Despite a series of mishaps, despite having to scramble, Olson doesn’t seem a bit annoyed or discouraged. In fact, he appears to enjoy these challenges.

The same holds true for Olson as a director. He says he likes taking risks that might not ensure safe results. He has contentions with the way Shakespeare is usually directed and those contentions have impacted his decisions on Macbeth.

“I hate the habit of [Shakespeare plays] being disconnected from an actor when they’re speaking,” he says. “You get this sort of poetry reading with costumes and that irritates the hell out of me.”

Olson asked his actors to deliver their lines more naturally, in an accessible cadence.

“It’s not what people expect with Shakespeare,” he says. “I haven’t emphasized iambic pentameter. In fact, I’ve broken it. And a lot of people will be upset even though I haven’t changed the lines at all.”

Another thing Olson did was cast his main Macbeth characters with actors who he says are generally laidback comedians.

“I picked a Lady M [Tashia Gates] who’s not a very severe woman, she’s a very nice, gentle woman. And Macbeth [Jared Branden], he’s goofy, he’s happy-go-lucky,” says Olson. “That bleeds out into his character and then when things start happening you actually see him change. Usually you get these severe people who are…just really power hungry. But the fact of the matter is, who wouldn’t be power hungry if you were told you can be king and it starts coming true?”

After Macbeth, Olson says MAT will continue producing a handful of productions each year in Missoula, including a stripped-down version of A Christmas Carol this December. The Missoula company receives some monetary support from the Havre board but fundraising and additional resources will be required for long-term success.

“It’s not like we’re just grassrooting totally,” he says. “But it is, again, building a brand new company down here. I’ve been forced to rely on Missoulians and they’ve come through.”

As for the curse, Olson has sort of balked at the superstition lately. Although he’s already experienced a number of mishaps, he’s aware it could have been worse.

“A couple weeks ago I talked to the cast about not saying the ‘M’ word in the theater,” he says. “But now we’ve decided we’re just going to chant it and say, ‘C’mon, bring it on!’”

Macbeth continues Thursday, Nov. 6, through Saturday, Nov. 8, at 8 PM. $15/$10 students and seniors.
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