Roger Hedden’s most important time at the Missoula Colony will be spent listening. The local screenwriter best known for the big-screen releases Hi-Life and Sleep With Me has been attending the Montana Repertory Theatre’s midsummer writing workshop since its inception in 1995 because, for him, there’s no better test for new material than hearing it read out loud—and paying attention to the reaction.
“It’s about the dynamism of seeing it for the first time with actors and in front of a live audience,” Hedden says. “You hear it live and just sit there, listening, and when you see it working, you think I’ve got the audience in the palm of my hand. Then there are the moments where you go, Ewwwww, that’s flat. You can see where you’ve overwritten—mental note: cut that line. You can see, Oh, I need another scene there…It’s a great way to find the holes. It’s become an invaluable tool.”
Hedden’s loyalty to the Colony—he now assists The Rep’s Greg Johnson in planning the event—is just one of many testaments to the workshop’s ongoing success. Now in its 11th year, the combination of master classes and directed readings (all of which are open to the public; see sidebar for this year’s highlights) has attracted a long list of celebrated alumni, many of whom, like Hedden, return year after year. This year’s lineup, for example, includes Colony veteran Marsha Norman, a Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose Trudy Blue was first read at the Colony before going on to an off-Broadway run in 1999. Also returning are James McLure, Ron Fitzgerald and Carol Hemingway, who’s presenting an updated version of It Just Catches, a play based on the short stories of her late father-in-law, Ernest. Hemingway first introduced the idea of It Just Catches to the Colony in 1998, and the play was eventually staged off-Broadway at The Cherry Lane Theatre in 2003.
“It’s the perfect example of how the Colony can work, not only because it’s a success story, but because it shows the trajectory of the evolution of a play,” Johnson says. “I mean, even though it’s already had a New York run, we’re still playing with it, we’re still working on it.”
To maintain the Colony’s success, and to better serve the core playwrights who continue to attend, Johnson and Hedden made it a priority to attract new voices to this year’s event. Locals The Candidatos will take part for the first time, as will representatives from Dublin, Ireland’s The Gaiety School of Theatre and NYU’s Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing.
“That’s a significant shake-up in terms of point of view, perspective and what kinds of talent we bring here,” Johnson says. “That’s the advantage to this year’s schedule. It’s a shot of energy.”
That energy is important to the writers involved. While a major portion of the workshop includes the master classes and open discussions following each reading, Johnson argues it’s the communal environment created over the 12 days that’s sometimes more important—some of the best discussions come during the off-day river float or during post-reading gatherings at The Depot.
“It’s pretty astounding the level of talent that Greg’s able to draw out here,” says Candidato Kevin Wall. “When we first saw the names and the bios we kind of laughed, just realizing how big some of these people are. For a writer to have access to this sort of talent in this sort of atmosphere, especially in a small town here in Western Montana, is an unbelievable opportunity.”
It’s no different for Hedden. Despite his resumé and tenure, he says he’s still nervous about debuting his first play in 10 years, and eager to gain some insight from the new faces. And more than anything, he’s anxious to do what he does most at the Colony—listen.
“I’m becoming an elder statesman of sorts, so being able to hear plays from brand-new writers with a fresh eye and a fresh voice and fresh take on things, it’s important for me,” he says. “I know I’ll hear something completely new.”
The Colony’s 15 readings are open to the public and each will be followed by a moderated discussion session between the audience, actors and writer. The forum is an opportunity to witness live theater at its earliest stages and to potentially discover—and perhaps contribute to the development of—a future hit. Here are some of the more anticipated readings from this year’s schedule:
Master class: Can playwrighting be taught?
Award-winning playwright and Tisch School of the Arts professor Marsha Norman has been a part of the Colony since its inception. Normally Norman would present her own work, but she’s just recently completed her Tony-nominated book for Oprah Winfrey’s hugely popular stage production of The Color Purple. This is a rare opportunity to learn from someone literally at the forefront of modern theater. Sat., July 29, 2–4 PM.
Brand New Love by Ron Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s dark comedy, Cyclone, which was previously workshopped at the Colony, premiered off-Broadway earlier this year to rave reviews; The New York Times called it “inventively written” and full of “aggressive naturalism.” Brand New Love is the Colony veteran’s latest. Sun., July 30, 8 PM.
The Count by Roger Hedden
Award-winning New York director Melvin Bernhardt will direct the reading of Hedden’s first full-length play in 10 years. Bernhardt won a Tony in 1978 for directing Da and was nominated again in 1982 for his work on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart. Mon., July 31, 8 PM.
The Pushcart by The Candidatos
The popular local absurdist duo comprising Kevin Wall and Justin Rose tests its newest original script. The follow-up to last year’s I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry—which Wall and Rose are touring nationwide again this summer and fall—is slated for a fully-produced Missoula debut later this year. Fri., Aug. 4, 8 PM.
Anaconda’s Ashes by Patrick Sutton
Sutton, the director of Dublin, Ireland’s The Gaiety Theatre School since 1997, kicks off the school’s partnership with the Colony by presenting a script set in Montana. Anaconda’s Ashes deals with Butte’s Irish population. Tues., Aug. 8, 2 PM.
All events take place on the Montana Stage in UM’s PAR/TV building. Readings are $5 each/$35 for all 15. Master classes are $10 each/$25 for all four. An all-access pass is $50.