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Exit Stage West

Rural theater-goers find Montana Shakespeare in the Parks out standing \nin their field.

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The child wandered onto the stage at the end of As You Like It, just as Rosalind was bidding the audience adieu in the final monologue. The little boy did not know that he had walked right through the invisible wall that separates audiences and actors. He raised his arms up expectantly, the way children do, and Rosalind lifted him. With the child secure in her arms, she said her last lines: “Bid me farewell.”

“Farewell,” the little boy said.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (MSIP) first toured in 1973. Now, the Montana State University-based company nears the tail end of its 31st season. MSIP takes two classic plays on tour annually, including at least one Shakespeare. This year, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and Moliere’s Tartuffe are on the road. Theater audiences across the nation are in decline, and small houses are closing. MSIP, however, has a waiting list of cities interested in booking a show. Last summer, as with each of at least the last five years, 25,000 people saw an MSIP performance. The professional actors take their shows to 52 cities in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Most are in Montana, and most are rural, some with populations in the double digits. At the end of its season, which runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, the van and the truck that carry nearly a ton of gear and 10 actors will have logged around 6,000 miles. There are no technicians or stage managers aboard. The actors drive, build the set, repair props and launder costumes. Sometimes they sleep. The MSIP tour is the most exhausting work many of the company members will undertake as actors. And, they say, it’s the most rewarding, because they find audiences hungry for live theater.

The actors are hungry, too. They come from big cities. Most are based in Chicago. They are tired of performing for the critics in every row. They are tired of the impermeable wall between them and those for whom they perform. The business of theater has worn some thin. With a large company, says actor James Houton, “It’s all about making sure the production makes money for the producers.” With MSIP, say actors, theater is not about the money. It’s about storytelling. Together, MSIP actors and audiences are trying to recreate the soul of theater as both groups believe it was originally intended to shine.

BUILDING AN AUDIENCE
“They’ve got a neat set this year. Look at that,” says a woman at a picnic table in Charlo’s Palmer Park.

“Looks like a new one,” says another. It is. They watch the actors build it. One actor steps onto the newly erected balcony.

“That’s amazing,” says Lewis Palmer, 86. “It’s holding that big old kid after just putting it up.” He has attended MSIP performances for 17 years straight. Tonight, the smell of fried chicken wafts through the park. The $7 dinner will help subsidize the cost of the show, paid by the host town. As with all MSIP shows, admission is free. About 150 people attend. While many are Charlo residents, the performance draws people from as far away as Big Fork and Missoula.

Audiences come with varying levels of familiarity with Shakespeare. Jan Stroethoff, a former English major, has been bringing her three children, ages 10, 12 and 14, to shows for the past five years. “I wanted to give the love of language to my children,” she explains. The family lives in Missoula, but they drive to Plains, Charlo, St. Ignatius, Superior and Hamilton to see both shows multiple times.

“Now,” says Stroethoff, “my [eldest] daughter is going into high school and she loves Shakespeare.”

For others, the language of Shakespeare is sometimes difficult.

“It is hard to understand, but some of us don’t really care,” says Charlo’s Susan Gardner. “You can follow along just by watching, they’re so good.”

In Charlo, it looks like rain, but no one is leaving.

Company members liken their modern-day traveling show to the minstrel shows that toured during Shakespeare’s time. They are plucked out of sterile, air-conditioned theaters and thrown to the whims of nature. They perform under hot sun, or through rain. Their playhouses include the Walt Nettik Memorial Horse Barn, with a big red door, in Boulder. In Charlo, the Mission Mountains and enormous willow trees serve as a backdrop.

They have performed at Poker Jim Butte, outside of Birney, population 16. From the butte, they can see 100 miles in every direction, maybe all the way to Wyoming. In Cut Bank, they shifted their schedule to avoid overlap with the Junior Miss Pageant show. In Baker, during a party an oil company threw for the troupe, an actor walked down the street with a beer in hand. A cop approached: “Hey Shakespeare. Hide that beer a little better.” In Havre, during the fair, Shakespeare coincided—and competed—with a demolition derby. Shakespeare lost. Curious, several actors took themselves to the derby after the show. “The goal is, they smash up the cars?” asks actor and tour coordinator liaison Lydia Berger.

“We go to towns that are just really, really small,” says actor Matt Brumlow. “They have no artistic outlet.” So people come from miles to see the show. All the actors speak in awe of Birney, Mont. The drive from Birney to Poker Jim Butte takes 30 minutes on a “crazy dirt road.” The actors wonder if any of Birney’s 16 residents will brave the drive. After a while, “You start to see the dust rise,” says Brumlow. Eventually, 150 people arrive to watch Shakespeare atop Poker Jim Butte.

But the essence of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, says actor and Company Manager Mark Kuntz, can be found in Heron. The setting is idyllic; the crowd tops 650 though the town’s population is only 149; and coordinators spoil the troupe with grilled salmon, good wine and—for the seven men—a cozy cabin in which to spend the night.

Heron lies just south of Highway 200, less than 10 miles east of the Idaho border. A small sign off the highway announces, simply, “Shakespeare,” in felt tip marker. The actors will play in a baseball field tucked into the Kootenai National Forest, surrounded by ponderosa and Douglas fir. The backdrop is a hayfield. It’s mid-afternoon, a little humid, and the set is going up. Cowboy hat tally: four. Cowboy boot tally: two pairs, including a red one.

It takes the actors two hours to set up and one and a half to tear down. The set is new this season, the largest they’ve used, and it was the source of stress early in the tour. Now, though, there’s a certain rhythm to the process.

The skeleton of the set rests on its side in front of the stage. Six actors grab beams.

“Ready, gentlemen?”

The gentlemen are, and so is Kerry Bishé, who plays Juliet and wears the red boots.

“One, two, three.”

They lift the set and walk it onstage.

A skirt is hiked, a level adjusted. Bolts slip into place. Wing nuts are secured. It’s about the 40th time this set has been built, but one actor estimates it’s closer to the two millionth.

Before going onstage, the actors peek through the slatted wings. Mostly, says actor Braden Moran, they’re looking for cute girls. In Heron, though, something else catches their attention: “Did you see this guy’s cowboy hat? It’s huge.”

It dwarfs any of their own hats.

It’s Berger’s night to introduce the show and she’s effusive. “We love, love, love, love playing here,” she says. The crowd, about 650 people, cheers. She tells them to buy cars from Subaru, a major sponsor, and they cheer again. She could say anything. The sky is clear, the blankets are spread and the wine is poured.

Well after most of the audience has rolled up blankets and packed away empty wine bottles, one cluster of friends remains, watching the actors tear down while sipping huckleberry blush wine. They watch the actors tear down every year. “It’s part of the show,” explains Geraldine Lewis, of Sand Point, Idaho. “They cart if all off in their truck.”

Juliet has long since plunged the dagger deep into her gut, and this lingering audience likes to see her post-show revival. Says Lewis: “Juliet puts on her cowboy boots and breaks it down.”

SLEEP IN SEPTEMBER

“There’s no room for divas on this tour,” says Jason Denuszek, a former MSIP actor, watching his friends tear down the set in the dark in Heron. And there isn’t room for prima donnas or brooding actors. Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is a non-union company, and unlike union companies, the actors do everything from building sets to mending costumes to keeping the books. The production requires people who can swing a hammer, lift a stage platform and then jump into costume for some sword-fighting.

Mostly, it requires people who can mend their own tights.

“[Matt Foss] gives me a margarita if I sew his tights,” says actor Braden Moran . Bishé, in charge of props, keeps handy a paint-by-numbers set, duct tape, a razor blade, and lots of different glues, including, “good ol’ rubber cement.”

They wash their own costumes, though not nearly often enough. Before the end of a production, Brumlow sprays his down with Febreze. He plays Tybalt, and he sweats.

“It’s kind of hard to get a monologue out if you can smell yourself,” he says.

When they tire, they remind themselves of their motto: “Sleep in September.”

In retrospect, they appreciate the rigorous demands. They own the production, every line uttered, every beam raised, every nut and bolt fastened.

“I have the fondest memories of this tour because I sweat so much for it,” says Brumlow.

Plus, their bodies, soft in the beginning, condition to the hours of physical labor before and after each show.

“We all have nice little guns now,” says Berger.

The men set up shirtless. In Havre, they drew a group of Hutterite girls who told the troupe they don’t often get the chance to lay eyes upon bare chests.

In eastern Montana, says Brumlow, he heard one of his favorite compliments. Sometimes, he says, wives drag along their rancher husbands to see Shakespeare. The actors peek through the wings and see the disinterest on the men’s faces. During tear-down, though, the weathered ranchers perk up. One approached Brumlow.

“You do this every day?”

“Yes, sir, we do.”

“Well, that’s something else.”

STORYTELLING
In Charlo, Jesse Weaver, as Damis in Moliere’s neoclassical French comedy Tartuffe, raises a riding crop into the air and makes a formidable request: “May lightning strike me dead.”

The clouds are dark and it’s raining. Lightning doesn’t seem far-fetched. “Don’t say that,” an audience member pleads.

Backstage, Berger is delighted. “Did you hear that?” she says. “I love audience participation.”

It’s a sign of life, a signal that their audiences are engaged in the production as much as the actors. For many Montana audiences, live theater can mean a 100-mile drive to Billings or Bozeman. “They come here hungry, and you can see that they’re hungry,” says Kevin Asselin, former company manager and actor. In part, the gratitude stems from “the fact that something comes to them,” says actor Wesley Broulik.

The advent of television and DVDs means communities have less incentive to come together, says audience member Cynthia Leib, at the Heron show. “With live theater,” she says, “you interact.”

The imaginary “fourth wall” separating audiences from actors disappears. Uncertainty abounds.

With no stage lights to blind them, the performers can see the audience. Dogs enter stage right. Once, remembers Artistic Director Joel Jahnke, a dead owl fell onto the stage. An actor (offstage) scooped it up with little ado.

Houton thrives on the spontaneity. “I love it when things go awry,” he says. He likes to incorporate the distractions into his character’s behavior, and into the story.

In Havre, he says, where the company played at the fair, where the demolition derby was scheduled for the same time slot, Houton uttered his first line, a question he repeats throughout the play: “And monsieur Tartuffe?” A shot rang signaling the beginning of a demo derby heat. Houton froze and looked up at the sky, as though his inquiry had precipitated a celestial explosion. Each time thereafter, when he asked about Tartuffe, he’d quickly turn his eyes skyward.

AT HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Some towns don’t have hotels, so actors stay in volunteers’ homes. The distance between actor and audience diminishes further, and the bond strengthens. “We stay in their homes, we eat their food, we play with their children,” says Foss. Foss, a midwesterner whose father bought cattle, talks prices with ranchers.

“I want to know what it’s like to ranch or farm,” says Brumlow. “They want to know what it’s like to be an actor.”

It is during these home stays that the actors witness the extent of the rural audiences’ gratitude and generosity.

“If there’s only one piece of toast in the morning for a whole family, they’ll give it to you first,” says Houton. “That’s humbling.”

In Heron, the ties that bind actors to audience is old and strong. Debbie Lyman coordinates the event, and has for years. Kathy Ball, whose daugher is now studying theater at MSU, coordinates the meal. She’s a gourmet cook, but says the word “chef” is too “high-falutin’ for me.”

Lunch in the community center is just over. Ball surveys a set of martini glasses used for fennel shrimp cocktail. A local volunteer holding a breadbasket walks in. “Kalamata olive, feta cheese, herb and then plain French,” she announces. It’s all homemade, says Ball.

“I cater for a restaurant in Hope, Idaho, and I always X out this day for Shakespeare,” she says. She and at least 10 other volunteers contribute a lot of time and plenty of their own money. “I love getting a little culture in the community,” says Ball. That’s her textbook explanation. But there’s another reason Ball, who is quick with a laugh, participates. “It’s so fun,” she says. “Mostly so fun.”

A LITTLE HELP FROM THEIR FRIENDS
The six actors who call Chicago home say that city’s smaller theaters are closing down or cutting back severely. Nationally, audience numbers are on the decline. In 1992, funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) peaked at $175.6 million. Ten years later, that figure had fallen by $60 million. Yet Montana Shakespeare in the Parks does not charge admission. With the addition of a Labor Day performance, says MSIP Development Director Moira Haggerty Keshishian, this year is officially the company’s longest tour.

As the company has grown, individual donors have become a critical part of MSIP’s funding, says Artistic Director Jahnke. “Most of them are not high rollers,” he says. In 1973, MSIP’s budget was $13,600. Now, it’s $421,000. Individual donors made up 12 percent of the total annual budget. Sponsorship fees, collected by community volunteers from local businesses and community members, comprise another 15 percent. Funds from corporate sponsors, MSU, government grants, sponsorship fees and annual fundraising account for the rest.

Last year, the company found itself in financial jeopardy. About $10,000 in private foundation money didn’t come through. Then, the NEA dropped its funding from $30,000 to $20,000. “How are we going to get through this?” wondered Keshishian.

They decided to count on audience support. “We had the opportunity to remind people that we needed their help, and they came through for us,” says Keshishian. At every show, an actor announced that if everybody who typically gave money gave just 10 more dollars, MSIP could pay its bills. At the end of every show, the donation buckets were overflowing, say actors Asselin and Denuszek, who toured last year.

“We doubled the amount of funding that we typically get in a summer from individual donors who attend the shows,” says Keshishian, and MSIP finished the year in the black.

THE GOD OF MSIP
Artistic Director Joel Jahnke joined the company in 1977 as a designer. It’s Jahnke the actors credit as the heart and soul of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks.

“He has a clear vision.”

“He’s the god of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks.”

“He likes that slapstick stuff.”

“He knows his audiences.”

Houton admits that he initially questioned Jahnke’s sanity when the director considered incorporating Monty Python into a Shakespeare production. Houton offers his internal reaction: “We’re going to do that? In As You Like It?” But when the company hits the road, actors realize that Jahnke knows his audiences. His motto is “no joke too cheap; no laugh too thin.”

“Joel?” says Berger. “He’s shameless.”

Jahnke, who is based in Bozeman but attends various performances throughout the summer, knows his actors as well as he knows the audiences. Auditioning for Montana Shakespeare in the Parks isn’t only about talent. The actors learn this when Jahnke spends five minutes with them after readings to determine whether they can live crowded with people in a van, and whether they have a sense of humor. “That five minutes is fully as important as the four-minute audition,” says Jahnke. When he’s in Bozeman, says Brumlow, he likes to stop by Jahnke’s place to “gossip about the group and have a martini. Or two.”

“You can’t do that with every director,” he says.

As MSIP’s reputation grows in tightly knit acting communities, Jahnke sees more and more actors who are interested in the tour. In the past, union actors have changed their names in order to sign the non-union contracts, but Jahnke believes this practice stopped several years ago. Now, the challenges presented by actors aren’t anything he can complain about.

“This is a lovely problem to have: You have four actors who can play the lead for you,” he says.

Before he sends them on the road, the actors say he warns them against being harsh with each other when tensions run high. He recommends that they kick trees instead of each other.

ON THE ROAD

“We’re getting very, very little down time,” says Houton. The stresses of living on the road are more than just the physical work. They live in a van. It carries their pillows, books, Dramamine, hopes and fears. Several years ago, an actor touring with Montana Rep was killed when a similar van rolled. The actors buckle up for Joel, who told them he didn’t want to get that phone call. They live out of backpacks or duffle bags. “I can’t fathom going back to my stuff,” says Broulik.

Kuntz’ time on the road is nearing an end. He says this is his farewell tour. He plans to move to Los Angeles. “The romance of living on the road is wearing a little thin,” he says. As company manager, he’s the one who rises at 7 a.m. to look for a Laundromat, the one who has to find an extra set of batteries or more Bungie cords. In part, fatigue also comes from the temporary nature of the friendships and relationships that form along the way, he says. He’s from Great Falls, though, and he knows that Montana will call him back from Los Angeles eventually. He thinks about returning to MSIP as a director.

Along the way, the actors inevitably stress each other out. “To have no technicians, to have no stage managers, we’re basically with each other 18, 19 hours a day,” says Houton. Patience sometimes evades them. Mostly, though, they are gentle with each other, and maybe rough on the trees.

When they do play, they play hard. Before slipping on her work gloves for setup, actor Reneé Prince turns cartwheels in fields. Even 15 minutes is sufficient time to race to a water hole, jump from a 20-foot cliff a couple times and race back for call. During the show in Heron, a swimsuit hangs from the rearview mirror of the van.

The evenings are full of what Foss likes to call “myth-making”—telling stories, drinking and dancing with the locals.

“If you’re pretending about life every night, you’d better make sure you’re living well,” says Foss.

They’re also homesick on the road. Broulik misses the Statue of Liberty and his two cats. Prince misses her sweetheart, who is also working madly this summer two states away. When Moran saw a “Chicago Ave.” street sign in Ekalaka, he snapped a photo for his album and wrote underneath, “made me misty-eyed for the big city.”

When they go home, they’ll take with them their cowboy hats and boots, more confidence and a new respect for the craft. “I’m very proud of the person I’m becoming,” says Foss.

“I’m more inspired,” says Berger.

“You feel grounded again, artistically,” says Brumlow.

Brumlow also learned to respect the people at home who mend his costumes and adjust the lights. “I realized what an asshole I’d been from time to time,” he says.

Universally, the actors will take with them a sense of invincibility, says Kuntz.

“You never panic anymore,” agrees Foss. In October, after they return to their homes, they start calling each other. Those who are in Chicago meet up. They don’t say much, but they sit close.

“You get together and you lean on each other a little bit,” says Berger.

They miss the families they’ve met, jumping in creeks, fresh air, and they miss Joel.

They swear they miss building the set.

Foss will practice fly-casting in the alley behind his Chicago apartment. “There’s fly-line in all the power lines because I’m still learning,” he says.

Actors will later find themselves in Ireland and France, Chicago and Los Angeles, and the mythology of a summer of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks will take on a life of its own. The gratitude that flows back and forth between the actors and audiences will sustain many.

Those who can will return next year to Montana for the love of the story, for the audience that stays through the downpour, for Birney, Mont., population 16, and for the child who walks right through the imaginary wall, onto the stage and into the arms of a willing actor.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks will perform in Missoula On Sept. 2 and Sept. 3 at the University of Montana Oval. On Thursday, MSIP will perform The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. On Friday, MSIP will perform Tartuffe. Shows start at 6 PM. kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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