William Blake used his garden to channel the poetry of John Milton. On sunny English days, he and his wife would sit naked out of doors, reading Paradise Lost to each other in turn. Such an exercise, such loyalty to language and its sensual powers, such deeply felt connection to another artist’s work, make perfect sense to Shaun Gant, who is best known in Missoula as a playwright. Her first play concerned just such a dialogue: a conversation between Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich, voices reaching out to each other across a century, just as Mr. and Mrs. Blake had reached for Milton. Gant interspersed each poet’s work, inventing a sort of conversation, a poetic dialogue that explored the themes that resonated through the lives of both women.
Gant uses her garden, too, for inspiration. Not long ago, she sat outside with artist Sheila Miles, reading aloud from her own poems. As she read, Miles drew. When Gant stopped reading, Miles stopped too. Gant was interested in the art such a relationship generated. The results were published recently on Newtopia’s website (newtopiamagazine.net).
It’s impossible to live in Missoula any length of time and not know Shaun Gant’s name. Her passion for writing and dedication to a demanding career have earned her recognition, and even if you haven’t seen her plays, you’re aware of her, as you might be of Goldsmith’s ice cream, the Waterworks Hill peace sign, Fact & Fiction: She’s a local institution. She has produced nine of her own plays in nine successive years at First Night Missoula, and her teaching career has drawn dozens of students. This Saturday, two of her plays, Girls-Eye View and Cosmic Surgery, will be reprised together at the Art Museum of Missoula. The first play debuted five years ago; Cosmic Surgery, which debuted in December at First Night, concerns her recent divorce.
“After Emily and Adrienne,” Gant says, alluding to her first play in 1996, “I thought, ‘You know, if I was really gutsy, I would write something that was important to me.’” From then on, her work has been highly personal, and the recent plays are no exception, plumbing the depths of a heartbreaking experience. People might be surprised, then, to find that Girls-Eye View and Cosmic Surgery are funny. “I’m only able to write comedy,” the playwright explains. “In tragedy people die, and I have more hope than that.”
So Gant has taken scenes and lines from her marriage and divorce and set them into a new context. “My husband once said to me, ‘You have the ankles of a cookie-taster,’ and it was really painful. I realized he had never liked my body, all those years. Well, that line is in there, and now it’s funny. You take that stuff and you think, ‘What does that say about men and women?’ Actually, that line is incredibly poetic.”
One of the actors, on his way to a recent rehearsal, was stopped in the street by a friend, who asked where he was going. When the actor explained, the other man said, “Oh, another one of Shaun’s man-hating plays?” The actor was taken aback, and Gant even more so. “I write feminist plays,” she says. “So that means man-hating? I’m an old-school feminist. Now [at the University of Montana] I teach young women who cringe at that word. I’m interested in that balance.”
Gant, like so many others of a certain time, was lured to Missoula by the call of Richard Hugo, the venerated poet who shaped a generation of Montana writers. Having grown up in Clancey, Mont., Gant pursued her bachelor’s degree in English at the University of South Dakota, where she minored in education, philosophy and French, before arriving here in 1981. After teaching high school English at Loyola Sacred Heart and serving a stint as the director of Bozeman’s Headwaters Academy, Gant started writing plays.
“All my plays take place in Missoula,” she says. “I’m not afraid of regionalism. First Night’s been a lucky venue for me. People always come. I’ve lived here long enough that I know enough people who will help. As far as community goes, I’m learning from everyone. The collaborative aspect of theater is something I get here.”
Gant has produced all her plays herself, and she believes in paying actors. “It’s hard to do everything yourself,” she admits. “I’ve had great support in Shirley and David [Juhl, owners of the Crystal Theater].”
Another pillar of Gant’s life is her son Max, 14. “I keep waiting for the stage where he hates me,” she says, marveling at the friendship they share. “He’s very independent, very much his own person. Kids, they come with their own personalities.”
Max has grown up around his mother’s artistic work, even toted as a baby to the MCAT studios when Gant was learning about video. “I always hauled him along,” she says. “And my work has influenced him too. He’s been in some of my plays.”
Girls-Eye View, first produced five years ago, allows Gant to examine a friendship between men, which means looking at how men relate to each other. “They use a lot of sports metaphors,” she says, and she has employed dynamic representations of confrontation through tango, swordplay and a game of cat’s cradle. The two principal men return over time to the same diner, where they are observed by a waitress.
“I want to explain power in friendships,” Gant says, “what makes a man’s friendship unique and what that can weather. The men have this ideal woman in the waitress. She knows all about them. She’s seen them for years. She has insights into them—her viewpoint is also my viewpoint. You know, I’m not a guy, so this is the way I can write about them.”
Cosmic Surgery sounds a bit darker, naturally, sharpened by the acid of divorce. The play explores a relationship between a man and a woman that starts on the Internet. “At the end,” says Gant, “the man and the woman can be apart and they can still be happy. It’s a feminist happy ending, an uneasy ending. You’re not sure the relationship will continue, but you know it will be important to them. My comedies don’t have these neat little endings.”
Gant will continue to mine her own experience, which means examining her own role in Missoula.
“Missoula feels like home,” she says. “I like my garden. I like teaching here. I like the kids here, and the people. I’m going to be here in the same community with them. You can be different people at different times. That’s what I’m writing about now.”
Her next work, which will debut at First Night 2004, is about the web of small-town connections. And what lesson can she teach Max from her career?
“It’s hard to be fearless and stay with your idea. But it’s your work and that’s what you do. I want him to develop this confidence.”
Cosmic Surgery and Girls-Eye View will be performed back to back at the Art Museum of Missoula on Saturday, April 17, with a matinee performance at 2 PM and an evening show at 7 PM To reserve tickets, call 728-9236.