It’s become a typical Sunday evening for Tyler D. Nielson: the 21-year-old University of Montana drama student is preparing for a three-hour dress rehearsal of his latest show, Burn This, in which he stars as Pale. This comes a day after spending his Saturday helping to build the show’s set, and at the tail end of four weeks of rehearsals and read-throughs. It’s not necessarily surprising that Nielson, or any aspiring thespian, would expend so much elbow grease and overtime on a show, but it is perhaps a little eyebrow-raising that absolutely none of it is connected to his academic pursuits. Nielson’s work on Burn This, as with the four other independent productions he’s been involved in since last May, is simply for the thrill of performing and the value of experience.
“I would not be doing well if it was for the money, that’s for sure,” he says. “None of us would.”
Nielson, a talented, tall, rail-thin actor and set designer, is one of a handful of local students spearheading a DIY emergence of local independent theater companies. Last July, When in Rome Productions, headed by UM senior Timmy L’Heureux and supported by a group of student volunteers, debuted with Neil Simon’s Star-Spangled Girl and followed it in August with Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia. Last May, UM graduate student Kristopher Monson extended his entertainment company, K-Mo Productions, from party planning to theatrical work, first staging Sight Unseen in UM’s Masquer Theatre and then opening Reefer Madness for a two-weekend run in one of Missoula’s largest venues, the Wilma Theatre. And this week SBTW Productions, headed by UM senior John Carrell, debuts with Lanford Wilson’s edgy Burn This, the first of what Carrell expects to be two or three shows from the new company this year. All of these upstarts work with some unofficial guidance from UM professors and staff, but are otherwise completely independent of the school.
“It’s an immense amount of experience in a short amount of time,” says Nielson, who also starred in Reefer Madness and Star-Spangled Girl, in addition to serving as technical director or set designer on all the aforementioned productions. “I’ve worked with the Montana Rep and the university, and with them the audience and the support from the community are already there. It’s a great opportunity to work in a new company where the audience isn’t established yet, where nothing’s really established yet.”
The upshot is an influx of new theater in the community, and the initial results are promising. K-Mo Productions broke even on its $27,000 investment in Reefer Madness, bolstered by strong houses at special midnight showings. According to L’Heureux, When in Rome sold more than 300 tickets during the run of its shows and created a mailing list of approximately 200 names; the company held auditions last week for its second season, which will begin in May and feature four new productions.
“I don’t try to act like I know everything, but I’m confident enough to go to the people I know from around the community and ask them for help and advice on how to make this work,” says SBTW’s Carrell, who spoke with L’Heureux and Monson in preparation for launching his company, in addition to seeking input from venerable local resources like Missoula Children’s Theatre’s Jim Caron and UM Productions’ Tom Webster. “The thing is, none of us are being competitive about it. This is about bringing more good theater to the community and helping each other do it.”
Aside from the experience and support, another promising aspect of the companies’ collective rise is the quality of scripts they’re choosing to produce—typically more contemporary and daring, with an appropriately defiant amount of sex, drugs and colorful language. Burn This, for instance, is a vogue choice for student monologues—that’s exactly how Carrell and classmate/Burn This director Tim Wickes discovered it—with its vitriolic tirades popularized by John Malkovich’s combustible portrayal of Pale in the play’s 1987 debut. In one defining scene, Pale storms into the room of an unsuspecting modern dancer to deliver an acidic rant on the ills of city living. It’s a character often compared to Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, and the chance to tackle that sort of complex figure is what appeals to those in SBTW.
“It’s one of the greatest male roles in theater,” says Nielson, noting the marked difference between this character and the physical comedy of his Norman in Star-Spangled Girl. “It’s why I wanted to be a part of the production.”
There’s a certain idealism driving SBTW and its counterparts. There’s the chance for Nielson to challenge himself, for Wickes to direct his first play, for Carrell to step out of the classroom and produce in the real world. Even the financial aspects with SBTW—Carrell’s been bankrolled $1,000, in part by donations from his family—are secondary to the experience.
“The biggest detriment to the University program is the lack of opportunity,” says Nielson, who’s had success with scene-stealing roles in mainstage UM productions like Peter Pan and Richard III. “So if these companies can come in and offer the chance to work in all areas of theater, then I embrace that.”
And as long as local audiences continue to embrace the productions, companies like SBTW are likely to stay.
SBTW’s production of Burn This continues nightly at the Crystal Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 PM, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1 PM. $9/$15 for couples.