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Missoula, Montana: A Place, Sort Of. That slogan used to annoy the hell out of me. I remember first seeing it on t-shirts and shoulder bags in the front room of Rockin Rudy’s a couple of years ago. I hurried to find my friend, a longtime Missoula resident, who was daydreaming amidst the patchouli incense. “What does this mean?” I demanded, pointing to the shirt. “Is it some sort of hippie thing?” She sighed and shook her head, as if I were particularly dim and pitiable. “No, Caeli,” she explained patiently. “It just means that this town is much more than a physical location.”

Essentially, the mission of the annual Missoula Colony is to explore the message on those t-shirts through playwriting. Four years ago, Montana Rep Artistic Director Greg Johnson and UM Fine Arts faculty member Michael Murphy launched Colony, which Johnson describes as, “a community project to investigate Missoula’s stories.” The process begins each year in the fall, when emerging playwrights may submit an application to the Colony in the form of a 10-minute script. The play can be about anything in the world—it just has to take place in Missoula.

Photo by Chad Harder
Ron Dulaney, Chris Evans, Kyla Foutch and Kate Hoffower (L-R,) are four of the nine local playwrights chosen to attend the Missoula Colony, a community project telling Missoula’s stories through 10-minute scripts.

This year, nine playwrights out of 50 were chosen to attend Colony based on those short scripts. “The winners were the writers whose plays conveyed something recognizably unique to Missoula, something well beyond just taking place here,” said Johnson. “They were the scripts that we felt were most deeply influenced by place.”

The participants vary widely in age and writing experience, and include both native Montanans and out-of-staters. From June 6 to June 12, they will meet daily at UM with three visiting professionals to develop their scripts and hone their craft. Heading the workshops will be playwrights James McClure (whose latest play is about the Butte Irish), Constance Congdon (her stuff has been a hit in New York, where it really counts) and screenwriter Roger Hedden. At the end of the week, professional actors will read the work of both the up-and-coming writers and the pros on the Montana Stage.

Ultimately, Colony attempts to develop unified themes about the meaning of place by telling individual stories about Missoula. It uses specific narratives to reach intuitive abstractions—to uncover what we know about Missoula but can’t easily articulate.

Johnson describes the plays he and Murphy have chosen to workshop at Colony as “kernels or acorns.” By the end of the week, each will have undergone a sort of transformation induced by discussion, brainstorming and reading. The final public performances are particularly important to the writers, Johnson emphasizes, because “the experience of hearing someone else read your work gives you insight about it that you could never gain otherwise. It’s a momentous occasion.”

Johnson, who is from New York, originally began to conceive the idea of Colony one summer when he and Murphy were attending a theater workshop in Bigfork and noticed that many people there people seemed unusually devoted to Montana. The purpose of Colony is to explore this affection—specifically, to uncover why Missoula is only sort of a place.

The Colony readings take place June 9-12 on the Montana stage in the PAR/TV building at UM. Admission $5. Call 243-5288.


A Prairie Home Companion is a public radio institution. For 25 years, Garrison Keillor’s dulcet tones have brought Powdermilk Biscuits (“Heavens, they’re tasty!”), Knute lodges, Minnesota Norwegiana and the news from Lake Wobegon into millions of American homes. As the venerable host and executive producer of this long-running favorite, Keillor’s name has become a byword for folksy, homespun charm since the show’s inception in 1974.

This week, the Mother Lode Theater in Butte will host two performances by Keillor and the Prairie Home gang, who will be stopping over in the Mining City as part of a five-city tour that will wind up the program’s 1998-1999 production season. Butte is the first of five stops on tour, says Prairie Home Companion marketing director Tiffany Hanssen, and one of a mere handful of shows not fed live from the spiritual home of the popular variety show—Saint Paul, Minnesota’s Fitzgerald Theater. Less than a third of the show’s 30-odd yearly installments are recorded on tour; Montana has really lucked out by getting to host one of them.

“We’ll have seven road shows this year,” Hanssen explains, “And that’s out of 32 total. We’ll be on tour through the Fourth Of July, which is when the season ends.”

The typical Prairie Home Companion broadcast features comedy sketches, special musical and speaking guests and, of course, the news from Keillor’s fictional small town of Lake Wobegon. A cast of regulars also appears with Keillor every week, including sound-effects man Tom Keith, Rich Dworsky’s Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band, and “man of many voices” Tim Russell.

The Butte performances will include some or all of these staple performers as well as two special regional guests: fourth-generation Montanan Stephanie Davis and her band, and cowboy poet Paul Zarzysky. The first show is a live nationwide broadcast; 467 public radio stations will relay the performance, and Hanssen reckons the at-home audience at around 2.6 million. The second is for locals only. “We had such an overwhelming response [to the Butte event],” Hanssen enthuses, “that we had to have a second show, just for the audience and not for broadcast.”

Keillor comes to Butte this Saturday.

Some 2,400 tickets have been sold in advance via mail-in drawing organized by a Missoula bank. All seats have been sold, in fact, although Hanssen stresses that tickets always become available at the last minute. “I definitely encourage people to stop by,” she says, “With all the returns and the no-shows, things are always popping up at the last minute.” Any available tickets will be released at the box office two hours prior to showtime. Cost: $35 per ticket.

The Mother Lode Theater is in fine shape to host such an auspicious event. Originally a Masonic Temple, a $2 million renovation of the 1923 structure has polished this dusty diamond into a world-class, fully-equipped performing arts center. It does not have a parking lot, however, so patrons are advised to come early. Montana Public Radio spokeswoman Kay Wilson reminds ticketholders to turn off all things that chirp (pagers, watch alarms and cellular phones) and extend Keillor and company a warm Montana welcome.

Last-minute tickets to Prairie Home Companion may be available at the Mother Lode Theater at $35 each. Or you can listen to the broadcast at home, Saturday, June 5 at 6 p.m. on KUFM 89.1 and 91.5 FM.


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