Imagine you are 15 and you live in Way-Out, Montana, pop. 1,240. You’re told to show up in the cafeteria for third period because there’s going to be a performance called The Beat Generation put on by the distant University of Montana, and then you’re going to have to stick around because there’s going to be a poetry workshop with the actors.
Now imagine you are somewhere in your twenties, you’ve lived in Chicago, you’ve studied poetry forever, you’ve got a rare acting gig with the Montana Repertory Theater, and you’re about to spend eight weeks in a van with three guys and you, traversing the state in an outreach project, bringing to life the New Yorkiest, the San Franciskiest Beat poets for groups of Montana kids, politely excising all mention of the “fucks” and “cocks” that Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg adored.
Randy Bolton directs The Beat Generation, an original work by Rebecca Knickmeier commissioned by the Montana Rep. The play weaves together cultural references and segments of Beat literature placed in the mouths of two men and a woman. You could consider it a crash course in a small moment of American culture, a glimpse and explanation of a cult that has long since been absorbed into the mainstream so effectively that it seems delightfully sweet to consider a time when it was subversive for a man to think of kissing another man. Bolton, who admits to “telling people I’m an old Beat poet,” was pleased to direct the production and challenged by the demands of the tour, not the least of which is squeezing everything, including the actors, into one vehicle. Denise Massman’s effective and clever set design collapses from a multi-paneled backdrop of connected paintings so that it can fit into the van. Yet within these confines she has brought out depth, history and texture, all illustrating a Beat world of Paris and poems and urgent insurrection.
Jessica Adam, Reid Reimers and Andy Greenfield have nameless roles as the speakers, and they move casually around their small stage, sitting on empty crates and climbing onto bare ladders from which they lean forward and bring words to life. In one scene, Adam sits before a typewriter as the two others feed a continuous roll of paper to her so she can bang out whatever comes to mind, a la Jack Kerouac. The actors variously perform excerpts from Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Kerouac’s On the Road and invoke Walt Whitman. Adam had to learn the saxophone, and Reimers plays the bass to give more texture to the cool-hot jazzy ’50s world.
Before heading off on tour, the slim company will perform the work for three nights in the Masquer Theatre and then, in November, will visit different schools in Missoula. How will Ginsberg, Kerouac and Snyder play in Power and Troy? How will Ferlinghetti, Burroughs and Cassady read in Glasgow and Glendive? It’s hard to say.
“This play can show kids that rebellion is OK, and it’s happened before and it can take different outlets,” says Reimers, dressed in black beret and a vest over black turtleneck. “Anyway, as Randy likes to say, any high school kid worth their salt is rebellious. Angst is OK, and you can do things about it.”
But how do you condense a movement into a meaningful performance that can be squeezed into third period? The Beat Generation uses snippets of poems, court proceedings, newspaper reports and correspondence between the famous poets for its substance. The actors are dressed in underground-Paris-jazz-club chic, and two slideshows—one before the opening, one at the end—depict various events and cultural icons of the 1950s. Occasionally, the dialogue announces with little subtlety something like, “This is a conservative time!” But in order for the work to succeed in its limited life span, such obviousness is necessary.
“Our job is to perform a poem, to get inside that poem,” says Adam. “Which is very different than performing dialogue. You have to think like the poet and writer, as if they were your own thoughts.”
“This is not a poetic reading,” Bolton adds. “The challenge is to make it interesting. In a reading you let the words do most of the work, or at least you try to. To get to the core of the poem and keep it interesting in a way that translates to the viewers instead of to readers, that’s the challenge.”
“And rooming with three guys,” says Adam.
“And the workshops,” says Reimers, who will be participating in one of three workshops for each stop on the tour: “Creating Your Own Beat Poetry, “Theatre for Social Change” or “Acting Skills: Text, Subtext, Body Language.” Greenfield thoughtfully adds his own personal challenge for the statewide cafeteria tour: “The transition from tater tots to gems.”
The Beat Generation will be performed Sept. 9, 10 and 11 in the UM Masquer Theatre. Performances begin at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $7, available at the Drama/Dance Box Office or by calling 243-6809.