About a dozen years ago, Greg Johnson was sitting at dinner with a friend in a Wilma apartment. From the table, he looked out the window at the tent that then covered Caras Park and the adjacent semi-circle of raked seating. “I wonder,” he said, “who I should talk to about putting on a Greek tragedy in that space?”
His friend looked at him and said, “You, stupid. You should talk to you.”
Johnson realized in that moment that he had ambitions for the Missoula theater scene. Like many Missoulians, his arrival in this town depended on serendipity, the sort of luck that leads life where it should go, rather than where it was going. Having packed up his belongings and left a failing marriage in New York City, Johnson was directing summer stock on Cape Cod when UM came calling in mid-August. The Drama/Dance Department needed someone to fill a temporary position during its national search for the person who would head the Montana Rep, the UM-based national touring company. Johnson, who had been planning to move out to California, figured Missoula was more or less on the way and said yes. A year later, he bested the national candidates and got the job. A decade later, he has become a vital force behind a new wave in Missoula theater.
Any given day might find Johnson urging Eugene O’Neill on his students—“They say I shout too much”—or directing rehearsals late into the night. He might be on a plane to New York to oversee open casting calls for the Rep, or he might be on the phone in his office, pitching experimental ideas to potential funders. He frequently appears on stage here and has directed more than two dozen shows in the last 10 years. What Johnson cares about, passionately, is more theater.
“More theater” should be the mantra of the newly-founded branch of the Montana Rep, which is called, simply, Montana Rep Missoula. One day, attending a conference, Johnson realized that while UM offered a superior national touring program with the Rep and a strong regional educational outreach program, Missoula had no “in-house” local company. “If we’re truly a regional theater company,” he asked himself, “then what would a local season look like, and what kind of theater would it be?”
Together with UM graduate Bobby Gutierrez, who completed his work in the Drama/Dance program in 1998, Johnson drew on his New York experience of small off-Broadway houses to design a company that focused on 99-seat venues, places where strong, sharp American plays, as well as Sophocles and Genet, could find audiences in intimate settings. “We want to do the theater for Missoula that doesn’t get done in Missoula,” says Gutierrez, preparing to rehearse Sam Shepard’s True West.
Gutierrez paces the Schreiber Gym in cowboy boots and a beaten leather hat. He is intimidating, to say the least, a physical presence defined by size, mass and strength. He’s a natural choice for the role of the dangerous, mercurial, fuck-up brother, and it’s no surprise that with Gutierrez as Associate Artistic Director, this play would kick off the company’s inaugural season.
“True West is an actors’ showcase,” says director Chris Evans. “At heart, all actors want to do stuff that’s ‘out there,’ the stuff that’s not safe, especially the good actors.” Even though True West dates from 1980 and is fraying a bit around the edges, it is still better theater in two sentences than most contemporary authors can eke out of a whole act. Gutierrez sweeps his arm toward the set of a cramped, outdated kitchen. “This is about filling the niche—with adult theater that’s fun, exciting, experimental.” The play opens Thursday night in the Crystal Theatre for a three-night run.
“Everything aligned,” says Johnson, accounting for the “Why now?” of MRM’s launch. “Dave and Shirley Juhl who own The Bridge said they were interested in having a serious theater in the space where the movie theater was, and [drama professor and design chief] Mike Monsos loves architecture and is excited about making theater spaces.”
All the actors smoke, and when the break is called they hurry toward the exit and start lighting up, enjoying the momentary relaxation, because once they head back in they’ll enter Shepard’s world of volatile tempers and old feuds, buried hatred and fear. Gutierrez and UM student Andrew Rizzo, who plays Lee’s good-boy brother Austin, inspect the chairs and typewriter they will soon destroy. Craig Menteer, one of Missoula’s long-established actors, waits offstage with the book in his lap. Former Drama/Dance faculty member and choreographer Lindy Coon sorts through her mother’s dresses, which will help her sharpen her character of mother to these men. In a corner, recent directing graduate Evans confers with stage manager Bill Wade, whose face is familiar from his late-night movie hosting on television. “The demographic of this group is perfect for our first show,” says Johnson. “It draws from every aspect of theater in this town, and that’s what we want to do.”
Everyone here tonight seems filled with the purpose and destiny of giving something to Missoula, making the city richer with theater, expanding dramatic possibilities. Missoula has been poised for a long while to broaden its options, and MRM’s standard for performers and projects can’t help but raise the bar for Missoula’s other companies as the new kid pushes into the theater scene. This is all part of a long-term vision, one that includes salaried actors and shows of Equity status.
“If nobody burns out,” says Johnson, “then this will be a success. There will be an audience for riskier, more adventurous theater, because if it’s good enough, people will come.”
Montana Rep Missoula presents True West, Sept. 25, 26 and 27 at 8 p.m. at the Crystal Theatre, 515 S. Higgins. Tickets cost $10 and are available at the PAR/TV box office on campus, The Bridge take-out at 600 S. Higgins, or at the door.