Ready for its encore 

The Montana Repertory Theatre celebrates 40 years

Dr. Firman H. Brown, better known simply as “Bo,” remembers the prescient moment like it was yesterday. During the Montana Repertory Theatre’s second tour in the summer of 1969, a time when five or six University of Montana students would cram into a car with one faculty member, some costumes and a set, and barnstorm throughout Montana’s more rural towns and cities, Brown, the company’s founder, hosted a special guest. Earlier in the year he’d applied for a grant from the still nascent National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and they’d sent Leonard Randolph, the administrator in charge of theater grants for the entire United States, to witness the Rep’s tour in Helena. Randolph ended up spending a week bouncing from town to town with the then fledgling company, ending with a particularly memorable night that seemed to epitomize the Rep’s future.

“We were in Plentywood, performing in their high school gymnasium-combination-theater, on its great wide stage, and Leonard Randolph and I sat together and were just amazed at this wonderful response from people that came from all over the county to see the performance,” says Brown. “In re-reading his report, which is really a wonderful, treasured document, he just spoke of the wonderful enthusiasm of the people, of the importance of that event in the community. I don’t know how to describe it, but at that time we all thought we knew what we were doing was right.”

Forty years after the Rep’s initial tour in 1968—a regional production that offered Julius Caesar, The Devil’s Disciple and She Stoops to Conquer—the company continues to resemble the one Randolph praised in his report. The focus is still on bringing high-quality theater to rural communities and showcasing UM talent. But over time and under the 18-year guidance of current artistic director Greg Johnson, the Rep’s developed a national presence as well, traveling to more than 100 communities coast to coast over the last five years, mostly playing towns with less than 6,000 residents. And while UM students are still a part of the tour, the Rep’s now a professional operation starring top-level equity actors, directors and designers. On Saturday, Jan. 26, the company celebrates its success with a special performance of this year’s production, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Johnson, and a post-show tribute to Brown.

“It’s grown more and more throughout all these years into what we hoped it would become,” says Brown. “I think, basically, it has just grown with interest in the arts in the United States, and it reflects a determination to continue to bring theater to this Rocky Mountain region.”

Brown says creating the Rep was always his dream, but it was just one of many he had for Montana theater. A Florida native, he attended UM because his father had just been assigned the role of irrigation engineer on the Flathead Indian Reservation. He graduated in 1950 after studying journalism and theater, and ended up pursuing both in Havre, splitting his day between productions at Northern Montana College and the sports beat at the Havre Daily News. After a few years working exclusively at Northern Montana, he pursued his doctorate in theater at University of Wisconsin. In 1956 he returned to UM to chair the Drama Department, where he created M.A. and M.F.A. degree programs, helped start the Montana Arts Council, established the Masquer Summer Theater in 1958, and founded the Bigfork Summer Playhouse in 1960. Seven years later he sold the Bigfork company, which is still in operation, in order to start the Rep. Somewhere in there he finished his Ph.D. by penning A History of Theater in Montana, a self-described “overly long dissertation” at 665 pages. 

“I spent off-and-on of six years sitting in damp basements of the seven major newspapers in Montana reading 100 years of old, bound newspapers, and taking notes about the theater,” he says, adding that he’s continued to update the book knowing full well no publisher would be interested in something “of such a silly length.”

But the historical project demonstrates Brown’s passion and belief in theater. He left UM in late 1969 to pursue teaching opportunities at Ithaca College, Rollins College in Florida, and then Ohio State University, establishing multiple theater companies along the way. Brown retired from teaching in 1995 and moved back to Missoula in October 2006.

“Bo’s legacy in western Montana is huge,” says Johnson, rattling off a long list of Brown’s accomplishments. “Those are seismic shifts in the mid-’60s as far as the sophistication of the theater scene in the state. It was just a huge step.”

For the last 18 years, Johnson has been doing his own work to further the Rep and Montana theater. Now the oldest national touring company in the nation, as well as a model for other colleges and universities, Johnson’s steered the Rep toward “defining our niche, which is the great American story.”

Ever since nationally touring To Kill a Mockingbird in 1994, the Rep, working with a New York City booking agent, has consistently added to its annual, cross-country schedule. And, all the while, the company’s maintained its purpose of taking high-quality theater to communities who wouldn’t otherwise have such artistic opportunities. Just a few years ago, for instance, Johnson remembers a poignant performance of A Trip to Bountiful, an emotional tale of finding home, in a still recovering, post-Katrina Galveston, Texas. 

“We happened to have a talk-back that night,” Johnson remembers, “and maybe 90 percent of the audience, almost the whole audience stayed. And they talked about home and what it means to lose a home and find a home and about family and loss and all of it. I felt there was a purgative event going on. Art met the community in a very profound way and we were actually above and beyond bringing a wonderful story to town. I think we helped heal a town.”

It’s a story not unlike the ones Brown tells of the Rep’s early years and what Johnson hopes future tours will continue to foster.

“That’s a story you may have heard before,” says Johnson. “But I think it speaks to how much this company means and how much this company can accomplish.”

The Montana Repertory Theatre hosts its 40th Birthday Gala Saturday, Jan. 26, in UM’s PARTV Center. Pre-show cocktails begin at 6:30 PM, followed by the performance, a short ceremony and an evening of dancing. $50. Call 243-6809. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof begins its public run Tuesday, Jan. 31, and continues through Saturday, Feb. 9.
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