Setting the stage 

Missoula’s theater scene came into its own last year. With a slew of new productions waiting in the wings, theatergoers are gearing up for an encore in 2006.

The traffic heading in and out of the Crystal Theatre on a Saturday in early November looked like the subway at rush hour in downtown Manhattan. The herds coming out mumbled warnings to those heading in, and those heading in either stopped in disbelief, or smiled and said with an air of smugness and ownership: "I already have one."

Eating Round the Bruise was sold out. Again. To get "one"-ticket, that is-to the return engagement of Barret O'Brien's original play, which kicked off Montana Rep Missoula's (MRM) new season, would-be audience members had to have purchased their seats at least an hour in advance of the show; more than 30 people were turned away from the final performance. Late-arriving Missoulians had trouble understanding-when did seeing live theater become a competitive endeavor? Since when did Missoula do the Broadway crush?

"Sometimes a performance just captures the imagination of a town," says Greg Johnson, artistic director of MRM. "Bruise did that, which is exactly why we brought it back for a second run-people wanted more.

The scene a few weeks later in a room above the bar at the Union Club was much different from that outside the Crystal Theatre, but it was just as telling of Missoula's newly re-energized theater scene: a group of mostly strangers, organized by local theater veteran Craig Menteer and newly arrived director and actor Mark Morante, gathered with the loose idea of creating a collaborative hub of local performers. The group asked, How can we help each other organize, promote and produce new and challenging works in town? Is there anything we can work on together?

The informal Sunday night meetings lasted three weeks, and nothing beyond the early stages of dialogue was established. But Menteer and Morante couldn't help but take notice of the turnout and the enthusiasm-almost 30 people arrived to brainstorm.

"We were kind of amazed," says Menteer. "We just wanted to call a general meeting to talk casually with like-minded people...The energy that was in there said that people are excited about getting something going.

Maybe something's already begun.

This time last year, Missoula's mainstream theater scene was solid, thanks to stalwarts like the Missoula Children's Theatre (MCT), the Montana Repertory Theatre and its smaller, local arm, MRM, and the annual season of shows offered through the Department of Drama/Dance at the University of Montana. Local independent theater, however, was noticeably absent from the scene-the occasional one-off production here and there, and little more.

Today, that tide has turned: invigorated by the emergence of local playwrights such as O'Brien and hopeful new performance companies like The Candidatos, aka Kevin Wall and Justin Rose, the theater scene is thriving. In June the latter duo debuted their absurdist comedy, I'm Sorry & I'm Sorry, to mostly sold-out shows in Missoula before touring to festivals across the country-a model they intend to build on as a local company that annually presents new work in Missoula and then books performances nationally.

O'Brien and The Candidatos are the two most prominent examples, but there's an additional host of endeavors working to get off the ground: The Mercury Theatre, a fledgling outfit headed by Joseph Welles, began hosting a local reading series last year and aims to produce a one-act festival featuring local artists in the spring; Madeline ffitch [that's how she spells it] and Donna Sellinger, producers of and actors in the touring two-woman performance By2, which played at the Crystal Theatre last November, tour under the name Totally Realistic Productions and are now working in Missoula full-time on a new play; The Foundry, the tentative name of the group called together by Menteer and Morante, could reorganize and has the potential for collaboration on new work in 2006; Morante has individually launched a free weekly actors' workshop; and a number of other conceptual performance groups are discussing possible upcoming debuts.

Overall, the local scene has gone, figuratively speaking, from a black box with only a ghost light to a full-blown production flooded with spotlights. The trend is most apparent in how Missoula's established institutions have decided to collaborate with the most popular newcomers: MCT Executive Director Jim Caron is working with The Candidatos on grant writing, as well as offering rehearsal and performance space, while MRM will debut a new O'Brien play in May and co-present another with The Candidatos in April.

"It's a renaissance," says Johnson. "There's definitely something. There's something going on here, and it's the sort of thing that we want to tap into and support as much as possible. You're starting to see some people come into town, or deciding to stay here, all producing new work. I welcome it-the more quality theater in Missoula, the better it is for everyone involved.

What makes Missoula's theatrical prospects so promising is that they don't appear to be a blip on the radar or a rash of one-hit wonders. Those who have starred within the last year seem intent on building slowly and committing themselves to the development of a sustainable local scene. A glance at plans for the 2006 season offers hints that Missoula's independent theater ambitions may be aimed at an extended run.

Finding or creating suitable spaces in which to produce original work is not an easy task, but you wouldn't know it hearing how Johnson and O'Brien are preparing for the May debut of O'Brien's new play, Breach.

"We're going bar-to-bar around town, playing pool and just checking things out over a couple drinks," says O'Brien. "I'm telling you, it's very hard work.

O'Brien, a New Orleans native, wrote Breach to be performed in the setting of a Big Easy bar shortly following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. MRM's plan is to present the play site-specifically, partnering with a local pub or restaurant that will allow the actors to perform in the bar area and the audience to be seated in the rest of the space.

"The trick is finding a bar that can accommodate a crowd of 100 people or so," says O'Brien, who adds that two venues so far have expressed interest in hosting the play. "We don't want a space where just six people are crammed in and lined up behind the pool tables, so it has to be a specific type of bar...If you look at how we did with Bruise, where people were coming early for dinner or drinks and staying afterwards, I think we'll be able to find the right space that sees this as a profitable, solid opportunity.

O'Brien's arrival in Missoula almost two years ago presented MRM with just the same sort of opportunity. O'Brien, 31, comes from a background steeped in theater: his mother, also a playwright and currently teaching in Ithaca, N.Y., created Southern Rep in New Orleans when O'Brien was 13, and he started acting shortly after. In 1998 he successfully launched American Dog, his own production company in the city-an effort that incorporated live rock music, movies and puppets with traditional theater-to rave reviews. Since then, he's worked in New York for three years, acted on stage, television (including a three-episode stint on "Dawson's Creek") and film (most recently with a speaking role in Runaway Jury), and his playwriting has been published in various national anthologies.

"When Barret moved to town, it allowed me to take [MRM] to another level," says Johnson, describing his working relationship with O'Brien almost like a partnership. "I'd say there's a new energy with Montana Rep Missoula, and it certainly has to do with his involvement. He brings more to the table than just good writing.

MRM is the local extension of the Montana Rep, a national touring company that was established through the University of Montana in 1967. The Rep's mission is to present works from the American canon, such as its January tour of The Trip to Bountiful, which will travel to 34 destinations, from West Virginia to Colorado. The company's business model has been extremely successful, both critically and financially, and since Johnson was hired as artistic director in 1990, the Rep has only continued to grow. But one drawback to such acute demand for the classics is that the Rep doesn't have the chance to experiment with more contemporary work or explore the work of lesser-known playwrights. Enter MRM, which Johnson launched three years ago as an updated version of a previous offshoot, The Young Rep.

"[MRM]'s really aimed to be the opposite of the Rep-producing new work, adapting old plays in new ways or fostering original work from local writers and directors," Johnson explains. "We're subsidized mostly by the Rep's tour, plus we receive some money from grants and the state Legislature-but every one of our Montana Rep Missoula shows has to break even so we can continue to justify it."

Breaking even wasn't a problem when Bruise debuted in April, and the play's return engagement in November was one of MRM's most successful weekends ever; more than 400 tickets were sold for three shows in a venue that seats barely 150. The response was promising enough to give O'Brien faith to stay in Missoula and continue developing his work here.

"Right now, it's working," says O'Brien, who's been able to leave a day job and focus exclusively on writing new material and performing, including a part touring with the Rep in The Trip to Bountiful. He's comfortable with his fit in Missoula, and sees it as the perfect setting in which to create new work.

"Regionally-that's where all the exciting theater is happening," O'Brien continues. "It's not just me, but I think you'd find a lot of experts and artists say that because, if you think about it, in New York and London the stakes are so high. Resources are limited-space and money and visibility-so you don't see people taking as many chances...As a young playwright I've had some exposure, sure, but my name doesn't exactly open doors yet. Here I can write and perform and get a chance to test material in front of an open-minded, excited theater community. This is the sort of place a young playwright should want to be.

Kevin Wall sits in his home office with a cup of coffee and his laptop on. The walls are decorated with pictures of his idols, including Slava Polunin, the renowned Russian clown, and performance artist Bill Irwin. Wall, 26, doesn't normally channel his onstage demeanor into real life, but as he talks about The Candidatos' aspirations, he mixes a heavy dose of reality with light-hearted humor.

"Can Missoula sustain an independent company like ours? We don't know," he says. "I think we've accomplished a lot coming as far as we have in just six months. People recognize our work, but long-term you never know. I had one person come to me and say, 'You guys are doing a really great job and I love the show, but you know it's never been done before, right?' What do you say to that? Um...thanks?

Wall and Rose are tackling the challenge of creating an independent theater company head-on. Weeks before unveiling I'm Sorry & I'm Sorry in June, the two hit the pavement distributing hundreds of eye-smacking, high-quality posters and table flyers to promote the show. A website was production notes, performance updates and online feedback forms for audience members to offer suggestions or accolades. This advance work, coupled with strong word-of-mouth after the first two performances, ensured a total of more than 600 tickets sold over three shows, and a standing-room-only crowd at MCT Performing Arts Center for the duo's closing night. The strong attendance and media attention continued through appearances at the Minneapolis Fringe Festival and Philadelphia Fringe, as well as a return to MCT in November. All together, over eight shows The Candidatos sold more than 1,300 tickets.

But that was only the beginning: beyond the stage, Wall and Rose have networked both locally and nationally, pitching their first show by distributing a promotional DVD and press kit, soliciting advice from accomplished professionals and exchanging ideas with like-minded artists. The duo has done everything from participate in Menteer and Morante's meetings at the Union Hall to make a point of attending more area concerts and art exhibits, seeking out potential collaborators. One result of their legwork is an informal agreement with Caron and MCT for guidance with their grant writing and an invitation to use rehearsal and performance space (Wall is an employee at the MCT box office), as well as an offer from Greg Johnson to co-present Samuel Beckett's Endgame with MRM in April.

"We want to be working with the community and working with emerging companies," says Wall. "Our goal is to just stay on the radar screen and continue to build slowly. What may keep us here, what may make it all work, is following the model of the Montana Rep and MCT. So when we were approached by Greg, we were flattered.

The Candidatos' mission is to create new work, but the offer from Johnson to stage Endgame was impossible to resist; unbeknownst to Johnson, Rose wrote his senior thesis on the play. The production will be directed by UM faculty member Noah Tuleja-who first suggested the idea of staging the play in response to an open solicitation from Johnson-and, as with Breach, MRM plans to stage it in a nontraditional location, such as a downtown warehouse that can be transformed for the length of the run.

"We're excited to do something not our own," says Wall. "I think it'll make us better. Plus, the Montana Rep has an established reputation and we're still building one, and while there may be some overlap, I think we have largely different audiences. It seemed like a good fit.

In addition to their work with MRM, The Candidatos remain focused on their goal of creating original work that can be toured nationally. Wall plans to direct their next play, a one-man show starring Rose, to premiere in November. He describes the new play as a natural maturation of I'm Sorry & I'm Sorry, relying less on the "Hobo the Clown model" and offering something "more emotionally resonant.

"We're going to give it some guts," he says. "As anyone who has seen Chaplin knows, he can break your heart. We touched on that a bit with I'm Sorry, but we plan to take things even further."

Craig Menteer has been producing and directing independent theater in Missoula for almost 30 years. A former UM graduate student in drama and a full-time contractor, his experience dates back to the Clark Fork Actor's Alliance in 1979 and '80, watching the prolific Montana Players in the late '80s and early '90s, and producing one-person shows in the upstairs space at the Union Hall-a quasi-theater he helped construct-throughout the '90s. He's worked with Greg Johnson at the Rep and directed independently, including Rob Chaney's new play, Rush, performed during last year's Festival of the Book. Menteer's experience with local theater leaves him wrestling with past frustrations and the current wave of optimism, including the interest he witnessed in the meetings he organized with Mark Morante.

"I tend to be pretty cynical about this stuff, like thinking it's always the same 80 people who go to every show and nobody else," he says. "But, I mean, I don't want to talk about why not to do it. We all know those reasons..."

Menteer leaves it at that, but the reasons not to attempt original theater in Missoula are worth mentioning: lack of space, lack of money, the limitations inherent to a smaller city and provincial intolerance for unfamiliar work are the biggest obstacles facing the scene's long-term sustainability. Space is at a premium outside of UM and the MCT Performing Arts Center. Downtown options include the Crystal Theatre and the Union Hall, but both are limited in the possibilities they offer. Just the fact of MRM's plan to stage two of its 2006 plays in a bar and warehouse illuminates the demand for a dedicated space.

Money is an issue for an upstart group because producing and promoting are expensive undertakings. Joseph Welles, executive director of The Mercury Theatre, admits he had to cancel a staging of The Woman in Black last year for lack of funding.

"It's hard for one person to just say, I want to do a play," he says. "Part of the reason I'm on the fringe, or the fringe of the fringe, is that I'm largely doing productions out of my own pocket.

Missoula's relatively small population and that population's phobia of new work are even bigger issues. There are only so many potential ticket-buyers, and increased competition for how those people spend their entertainment dollars makes it difficult for live theater to maintain an audience. In addition, there's a proven track record of bigger-name productions consistently drawing larger audiences than new or more challenging work. That makes staging unknown titles a huge risk for producers who are often already working with small margins and can't afford to take a loss.

"When we do a big-name musical, there's not an empty seat in the house," explains Jim Caron, who founded MCT in 1970 and remains executive director. "Damn Yankees, for instance, was huge for us. But when we do something like Inspecting Carol [which ran in December] we suffer at the box office because it's smaller, people haven't heard of it before. We'll never be doing the cutting-edge small stuff.

But then Caron adds: "That's what makes I'm Sorry & I'm Sorry so valuable. It brings people into this theater that normally aren't drawn to MCT productions. That's important to growing not only our visibility, but helping other groups-providing a service-to help them increase their audience. I was so completely blown away by their show and hugely impressed...'As far as I'm concerned,' I told Kevin, 'our space is your space.'

Caron's offer is part of what's sparking Menteer's-and others'-recent optimism. The emergence of quality work from new sources is opening doors and creating new partnerships across the theater community. The increased cooperation leads to more ideas, better resources and a sustained buzz within the community-less a sense of competition than collaboration.

"If you think about it," says Wall, "we can only produce one show a year-or two if we're partnering with someone, like with Endgame. That leaves a lot of empty time when, if nobody else is doing theater, then the whole scene is losing its audience. There's no momentum. The way it's stacking up now, there's enough going on, and enough diversity in what's being presented, where I think we're helping each other by all putting out work.

Menteer agrees, which is part of the reason he and Morante began having weekly meetings, and why Morante was inspired to host weekly acting workshops.

"People are always going to make theater, or get together on a whim and say, 'Let's make a show,'" Menteer says. "But is there a possibility of something being more permanent? I think there is a possibility. It has to build slowly, and it'd have to be independent, but I do think people are looking for something like that now. It could happen. Maybe things are different than they have been."

Greg Johnson sits in his UM office talking about MRM's upcoming season and the anticipation for the new year has him on a tangent. He mentions the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which was created by three college students in the basement of a Catholic school just outside of Chicago in 1975. One of the founders was Gary Sinise, now a famous actor best known for his roles in Forrest Gump and TV's "CSI: NY." Over three decades, Steppenwolf has become one of the premier independent theaters in the country, fostering new and upcoming playwrights and launching talents including John Malkovich and Joan Allen.

"We'll never be Steppenwolf, but, you know, that's kind of the model," says Johnson. "That's, at least, what we can strive to be.

Sitting over coffee and discussing Breach, O'Brien hits a similar note when discussing Missoula theater's prospects. He mentions Seattle's Intiman Theater company and how he recently traveled west to catch one of their shows.

"They have such quality performances that they don't even have to travel," he says. "People come to them. I could see that becoming the evolution of Montana Rep Missoula-down the line, of course, but...

Menteer and Morante also skew their dreams toward bigger things.

"If we just had a better space," wonders Menteer, "then maybe this could really take off.

"We had 14 people attend the first actors' workshop," says Morante. "That confirmed my sense, like our meetings, that there's a need and a desire for more local work-I'm thinking [the workshops] could not only go on past March, but develop into something more.

And Wall has ambitions for even more shows: "If the grant writing and the sponsorship opportunities take off, I think we could actually grow," he says. "We could have programs and workshops and bring in the rest of the community to not only watch, but participate.

The producers, directors and actors in Missoula's current theater scene got this far by thinking big and thumbing their noses at roadblocks, so they're not about to stop planning for the next level of success. The mentions of Steppenwolf and Intiman, and the prospects of new spaces and more shows may seem lofty, but they're no more so than the idea of staging a play in a bar or converting a warehouse into a performance space.

The curtain is set to rise on Act Two of Missoula's contemporary theater scene, building on the solid foundation of last year's success. Here's a suggestion: make sure to grab your seats early.

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