On the fringe 

Missoula Oblongata plays to quirky sensibilities

The Missoula Oblongata never knows what to expect from an audience—and vice versa. At a recent performance of their third full-length original play at the Bread and Puppet Festival in Vermont, Madeline ffitch and Donna Sellinger found themselves in front of a rowdy crowd.

“They were just totally out of control and cheering after every line and were pretty unruly,” says ffitch (she prefers the lowercase), one of the three “theatre makers” comprising the locally founded experimental theater troupe. “We’ll get a polite theater audience where afterwards they say, ‘Oh, that was really nice!’ And then we get these crowds of young people who…maybe have never been to a play and they just don’t know how to act. So the whole play they’re just cheering and heckling us and yelling out, ‘No! Don’t do that! Oh no!’ And we love that.”

Their latest work, The Last Hurrah of the Clementines, tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Clementine, an astronomer and a mathematician working in calico tents and sending eggs into outer space for research. One day a stranger—an athlete— knocks at their door, disguised as a fortune cookie seller, and the Clementines’ lives are changed forever. If this sounds like a topsy-turvy world akin to some combination of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and the strangely enticing visual world of Maurice Sendak, that might be about right.

Currently on tour and working its way through festivals and underground theater spaces—including the Berkshire Fringe Festival and a Tucson anarchist collective—The Missoula Oblongata features a live soundtrack by Missoula musician Travis Sehorn. Ffitch—who also co-founded Missoula’s Slumgullion, a non-profit zine and comic publishing co-op—says she and Sellinger knew Sehorn would make a good match.

“We [have an] all-around artistic way of living and making art and I thought that Travis sort of embodied that,” she says. “I hadn’t heard his music all that often…but I noticed even besides his music and his writing ability he just has amazing showmanship.”

Ffitch now lives in Boston where she’s working toward a master’s in creative writing, and Sellinger lives in Baltimore where she’s working toward a master’s in experimental theater. Along with their third member, Sarah Lowry, who directs the performances but doesn’t tour, they met up with Sehorn in Baltimore in June to rehearse and construct their set.

“Actually it was pretty secretive the first two weeks that we were working on the show,” says ffitch. “Donna and I would be in the rehearsal room building the set all day and Travis would be in the other room working on the music. You could see these pages he was scribbling on and we saw his instruments so we knew something was happening. Finally, pretty late in the rehearsal process, he just came in and showed us…and it was just amazing.”

Sellinger and ffitch write scripts together but have an independent approach. They often collect junk from dumpsters and yard sales without having a sense of how the items will fit into the story. They amass raw materials like PVC pipes and plywood as well as toys, lawn ornaments and discarded paintings done by art students. Even in the final production, items may not literally align with the storyline, but ffitch says they work as complementary aspects to the production.

“We have an extremely elaborate and lush setup and it takes us a very long time to set the show up but it all breaks down into the back of our minivan,” she says.

This kind of efficiency helps show how the troupe has evolved over the past three years. Ffitch and Sellinger have both picked up carpentry and sewing, and Sellinger does much of the electrical wiring for the shows. Besides these hands-on skills, ffitch says she’s learned some lessons from their approach.

“I think there’s a sense that maybe doing things on an underground or do-it-yourself level is maybe a stepping stone on the way to something else. We’re quite ambitious as a theater company and we’re full time [so] we do perform in fancier theaters sometimes,” she says. “But we actually tend to get a much bigger audience and make more money at the door when we just perform in these galleries and warehouse spaces. It’s a really good way to tour.”

And DIY performing leads to DIY fan promotion. A young kid who saw The Missoula Oblongata perform at the Plan-It-X Records festival in Bloomington three years ago asked them to come through his hometown of Santa Fe this summer. They’d never been to the Southwest and didn’t have a fanbase there, but ffitch says when they arrived the kid had assembled about 100 people for their show.

“That kind of thing makes me feel good,” she says, “especially since there’s so much rhetoric now about how people don’t go to the theater and it’s a dying form. We just don’t think that’s true. That’s not part of our experience.”

The Missoula Oblongata performs The Last Hurrah of the Clementines at the Zootown Arts Community Center Friday, Aug. 22, at 9 PM. $6.
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