Alpine Theatre Project combines big names and verve

The Alpine Theatre Project’s rehearsal space is a storage room in the back of a Whitefish restaurant. It’s hardly the plush environs that a trio of Broadway veterans are accustomed to, especially a group with a board of directors featuring actor Henry Winkler (aka The Fonz from “Happy Days”), and Broadway entertainers Robert Goulet and James Naughton. But Betsi Morrison, Luke Walrath and David Ackroyd, the three founders of the non-profit startup, think this cramped rehearsal space—filled with pianos, a computer, actors, onlookers and a large cardboard box in the center of the room with a paper sign that reads “lamp post”—captures exactly what ATP is, and what it is trying to accomplish.

ATP got its start in 2002, when the Whitefish Theatre Company approached Morrison and her husband, Walrath, with the idea of starting a summer theater in the area. The two had just moved to Whitefish, where Morrison was born and raised, after working as actors on Broadway in New York City. Morrison and Walrath were enthusiastic about the idea, having decided to stay in Whitefish, and brought on Ackroyd, a Flathead Valley Community College teacher with his own Broadway experience. The trio’s challenge was to create a professional, Broadway-style theater company in Northwest Montana, where fishing, golf, boating and hiking reign during the short summer.

“We want to make Whitefish a cultural destination,” Ackroyd says.

Their first production, I love you, you’re perfect, now change, debuted in the summer of 2003 with a budget of $18,000 and a crew of 10.

Things went over well and several shows sold out. But the encouraging results, possibly influenced by fires driving tourists indoors, didn’t last. Despite growing to two shows last summer, Songs for a New World and Art, the crowds dwindled.

Morrison admits, “It’s a battle to get people in from the summer weather.”

Seeking an injection of buzz and financing to avoid similar struggles this summer, Morrison, Ackroyd and Walrath got aggressive with their fledgling company’s future. Utilizing their connections and networking in the community, they raised more than $100,000, gathered four guest actors with a total of 30 Broadway credits among them, collected a crew of about 30 people, and chose to break away from the Whitefish Theatre Company to form their own, standalone non-profit. At the same time, they added Winkler, Goulet and Naughton to their honorary board.

Ackroyd, who attended graduate school with Winkler and later shared a home with him on Long Island, placed the call to the former Fonz. Ackroyd recalls his friend saying early in their friendship, “Some day one of us is going to have a theater, and we’ll hire each other.”

Morrison acted alongside Goulet in South Pacific. She said their friendship developed when he kept checking in to see how her backstage crocheting was coming along. Goulet happily accepted his invitation to join the board. The board, Walrath says, shows “What we do is something that resonates with some of the best in the industry.”

Despite the big-name support, ATP still has aspects of an upstart operation. Walrath is directing their first show, My Fair Lady, but, as this play goes public, he will also begin preparing for his acting role in a second show, K2. At the same time, Ackroyd, who plays Professor Higgins in Lady, is taking over the directorial reins in K2. Things are so hectic for the company that a recent conversation outside of rehearsal found them continually digressing into side discussions about painting schedules, moving vans and the arrangement of scenes within Lady. It’s been so chaotic they hung a sign in the modest rehearsal space to remind everyone what day it is.

“It’s all one big day,” Walrath says, laughing, “with a little nap in between.”

Part of the adventure of running ATP comes from the company’s fearlessness in choosing large-scale productions. With K2, which begins August 13 and was chosen to appeal to Montana’s outdoors-loving crowd, they have yet to figure out how to represent a mountain on stage. The play calls for Walrath to ascend one, using climbing gear, and fall about 10 feet.

My Fair Lady, which opens this weekend, is normally done on a large traditional stage, with a full orchestra providing music. But ATP came across a rare two-piano version of the play and decided to mimic it with their own twist. Using “alley style” staging, they will collapse the middle seating section of the O’Shaugnessy Center to run the stage lengthwise between the seats.

At first, they were reluctant to try this setup because of the obvious technical difficulties—building the stage would be a challenge, and their rehearsal space is only about half the size of the performance area. ATP got around the problem by learning to pretend they were on different sides of the stage while rehearsing. They’re hoping for the best when they begin using the O’Shaugnessy Center and an actual set, one week before their opening.

Another problem with staging the play this way is the cost: taking out an entire seating section means losing 60 customers every night. But, after running it by their board, the founders decided, “Hell, let’s just do it.”

“Our emphasis is on the work, not on the box office,” Ackroyd says.

The intrepid approach is what Walrath believes will lead to ATP’s success.

“Ultimately, we can’t settle for the way things have been done,” he says. “We’re aiming for the moon.”

The Alpine Theatre Project’s summer season begins Saturday, July 16, with a performance of My Fair Lady. This production runs through Aug. 17. K2 begins Aug. 13 and closes Aug. 28. For more information, contact the box office at 862-SHOW.

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