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Incubating playwrights at The Missoula Colony



Unlike other summer writing colonies and retreats that focus on bringing in big-name writers, the Missoula Colony concentrates on developing a stable of writers—playwrights and screenplay writers who return year after year to work on their craft with friends and colleagues under the big Montana sky. “We like to think of ourselves as a family that gathers here each summer,” says Greg Johnson, artistic director of the Montana Repertory Theatre, which sponsors The Colony. “Instead of trying to draw the flavor-of-the-month writers to The Colony each summer, we are more interested in the development of a handful of artists. We also like to focus on the ongoing work and growth of these writers over many years instead of on the creation of a play here or a screenplay there. We don’t spread the net that wide. Instead, we feel a great loyalty to the people who make The Colony happen and to the works that are being done over one or two or 10 years.”

“The Missoula Colony: A Gathering of Writers for Stage and Screen” was formed seven years ago in a response to the folding of The Gathering at Big Fork, a summer writers’ retreat started in the mid-1980s. “Writers seem drawn to Montana, especially in the summer,” says Johnson, who was one of the founders of The Gathering at Big Fork. Whether it is the open land, the vastness, or a reprieve from a city apartment the size of a backpack, writers seem to thrive in Montana, the words spattering out of their imaginations like fat summer raindrops.

“After The Gathering at Big Fork folded, Michael Murphy [head of the University of Montana’s Media Arts Program] and I started The Colony here,” says Johnson. “What better way to help writers develop their craft and at the same time have a good reason to invite friends to Montana to work with us?” Both Johnson and Murphy worked for many years in theatre and film in New York City and Los Angeles.

The Colony runs for about 10 days, kicked off with the “Back to Basics” Weekend. For a fee, writers of all experience levels spend two days under the tutelage of accomplished writers learning the fundamentals of writing a play or screenplay. Last year, some 40 writers attended, from high school and college students to older people who always dreamed about writing and finally did something about it. “The high school students are always good fun,” Johnson says. “They bring a great energy, an enthusiasm and creativity that comes with being that age.”

Though two days is not a long time to learn any craft, the instructors during the “Back to Basics” weekend concentrate on the basics of writing a good story: character, plot, place, story arc, and how to find your narrative voice. “Marsha [Norman] is great with the students. She really gets them cooking,” Johnson says. “Every year we change slightly the main theme of the classes and exercises and go from there. We might concentrate on what makes a good story or how to develop a plot. It’s all about the fundamentals.”

Playwright Marsha Norman has been participating in The Colony since its inception. She is the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning author of ’night, Mother; Getting Out, and The Secret Garden, a musical based on the children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. One of the play readings at this year’s Colony will feature her new play.

Like any skill, especially in the arts, writing is all about doing. Sitting down with paper and pen once a month for two hours does not a writer make. Like training for a marathon, writers have to run every day, no matter how good or bad that day’s run happens to turn out. “Director Harold Clurman told me years ago that writing is like spreading manure. Not every patch of land is going to bring to fruition the best crop,” Johnson says. “What is important is the process of writing. For every handful of bad plays a truly wonderful one emerges.”

After the “Back to Basics” weekend, The Colony presents readings each afternoon and evening of new plays or plays in progress. This is where the “family” emphasis kicks in. A cache of writers, directors, and actors get together to “perform” these readings from which the writer can hear his or her play come to life out loud, the characters speaking in real voices beyond the realm of the imagination. This year, the readings include new plays by accomplished and well-known writers like Norman, Ron Fitzgerald, James McClure (Lone Star, Laundry, and Bourbon), and Roger Hedden (Bodies, Rest & Motion, Sleep with Me, and Hi-Life) as well as new works by a handful of graduate students and emerging talents.

As a new event this year, Norman will join local writer Judy Blunt, whose recent memoir, Breaking Clean, has caused quite a stir in the literary world, for a conversation entitled “A Sense of Place.” The conversation between the two writers—one from a very rural world of prose, the other from a more urban world of the theatre—will be followed by a Q&A period. Montana Public Television is also videotaping the event as a pilot for a proposed series of programs pertaining to the craft of writing.

For writers, directors, or actors, The Colony is about sharing, teaching, learning, and spreading a love of storytelling. “I love the energy of having these people here. And shaking it up every day as a group, a group that’s driven by the same interests. It really does feel like a family at its best: creative, connected, alive,” Johnson says. “Sometimes the best conversations take place long after the readings are over, over a drink, under the night sky, just talking and talking.

For more information on all the readings and events of The Missoula Colony (June 15–22), please call 243-6809.

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