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January 24, 2008

Missoula: Theater town -- but only outside city limits

Joe Nickell

A couple of months ago, a magazine called Inside Arts commissioned me to write an article about how performing arts presenters - that is, concert halls and theaters that host shows by touring performers - go about localizing the touring shows they present. In the course of working on the story, I ended up calling more than a dozen presenting companies around the country.

During a few of those conversations, it came up that I live in Missoula.

"Oh, Missoula," the refrain always came. "Great theater town."

I heard the same thing from several people last February, when I attended a theater journalism institute in Los Angeles, presented by the National Endowment for the Arts.

In the arts world outside Montana, Missoula is practically synonymous with theater - and for good reason. Montana Repertory Theatre, now celebrating its 40th year as a going concern (see related story), spends each spring traipsing across the nation, performing in major and minor halls to oft-enrapt audiences, earning rave reviews at practically every stop: "This is what theatre is meant to be," crows the Charleston Gazette; "an outstanding afternoon, filled with power," says the Green Bay (Wisc.) Press-Gazette.

Meantime, Missoula Children's Theater has made an international name for itself by sending crews of theater professionals to some of the most far-flung regions of the earth. During its 2007-2008 season it will send a total of 27 teams to raise 900 shows with over 55,000 children in all fifty states as well as Canada, Europe, South America and Asia. No other children's theater company in America comes close to equaling what MCT does.

It's funny how different things look from inside the city limits of Missoula itself.

As I typed that last sentence - as if by divine intervention, or at least a stage cue - my phone rang. It was a woman from Kalispell -- a small city about two hours north of Missoula. She was in Missoula visiting for the week.

She wanted to know if there was any theater worth seeing while she's here.

"I looked online and couldn't find anything except ('A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' at) MCT," she said. "I saw that already, so I was wondering if there are other things going on."

No, dear caller, there are not. Nor, for the most part, are there ever more than one or two plays running in Missoula at one time - even if you count student productions and independent productions.

Professional theater, with paid actors? It practically doesn't exist. Next week, we Missoula-folk will get a quick run of performances of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," this year's Montana Rep show. Unless something surprising happens, the next time we'll see paid actors on stage is when Montana Shakespeare in the Parks comes through Missoula - which usually happens sometime in August. Then, we'll be waiting until February again, for the next Montana Rep show.

That may sound more dire than warranted. For one thing, the season of shows by University of Montana students is often chock full of great plays done surprisingly well; same with the community productions put on by MCT.

Additionally, Montana Rep Missoula has emerged in the past couple of years as an exciting new local production company, presenting challenging modern plays to local audiences. The goal of that company - started by Montana Rep director Greg Johnson -- is to reach a point where a full season of shows performed by paid actors and crews can be presented in Missoula.

And every few months it seems that some independent group appears on the scene, putting up a short run of a play, often with fine results.

But given Missoula's reputation out in the world, isn't it just a little strange how little theater we have going on here in town?

"It's a great irony, isn't it?" muses Greg Johnson. "I think about it often."

In fact, Johnson has tried to remedy the situation before, as far back as his own history goes in this town. When he arrived in Missoula in 1990, he immediately founded the Young Rep, a company focused on presenting new plays to local audiences, employing student actors. That company petered out around the beginning of the new millennium.

"It sort of ran its course," says Johnson. "We decided to close it down and see what would happen next."

What happened was Montana Rep Missoula, a similar company with less reliance on student actors and crew. Since its founding in 2003, the company has enjoyed increasing success, often selling out tickets when it performs at the Crystal Theater.

"We're on the cusp, I think," says Greg Johnson. "Demographically, socially, economically - we're almost there where this town can support a local theater company."

In the meantime, we in Missoula should probably be careful to count our blessings -- to enjoy the fact that people around the nation and the world associate our city's name with theater. It's better than being known as the Tire Capital of the World, or Clam Town, USA.

"I always try to see shows when I come down to Missoula," noted the woman who called earlier, "because there's nothing happening in Kalispell."

(cross-posted at Nickell's Bag)

Posted by Joe Nickell at January 24, 2008 3:13 PM