This post originally appeared in Sam French’s Breaking Character Magazine
This past June, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and DGF Traveling Master Jon Robin Baitz (Other Desert Cities, The Film Society) visited Montana Repertory Theatre’s Missoula Colony to share a keynote address and a new play with local artists. Known regionally and nationally as a dynamic, professional touring company, Montana Rep’s vision of theater is utterly holistic and inclusive. Their mission includes the wish “to celebrate the human spirit in an ever-expanding community.” The DGF Traveling Masters program brings luminaries of the modern stage to regional theaters for masterclasses on writing. To ensure the continued relevance of theater throughout the United States, programs like Montana Rep’s Missoula Colony and the DGF Traveling Masters are important tools in strengthening and amplifying the voices of artists outside of New York City and other urban centers.
The Missoula Colony, was founded in 1996 by Michael Murphy, Marsha Norman, and Montana Rep Artistic Director Greg Johnson. Convening annually at the University of Montana, where five gorgeous Rocky Mountain valleys and three stunning rivers converge, the Colony’s ongoing mission is to bring the Missoula theater community a week of discussion, artistic exchange, and new play readings and workshops. Every summer, Missoulians and visitors alike congregate on the beautiful campus to share their ideas about the American theater and celebrate the craft of writing. And according to the Colony, this grand communal experiment reflects a fluid spirit and purpose, operating as “both a place, and an idea.”
Playwrights swear by the Missoula Colony’s effects and scope. Anita Vatshell, a Louisiana-based playwright, has attended the program eight years in a row. “Exposure to new and established theater artists and emerging writers is a core component of the Colony,” she writes. “The Missoula setting and Colony structure creates an intimate learning and networking atmosphere with other writers, actors and theater lovers.” Carson Grace Becker, a Montana-based playwright, notes that the program’s emphasis on community-building makes it unique among similar, institutional workshop settings. “In my experience, it is both important and joyful for playwrights to gather together — to talk, share, write, experiment, observe, innovate, etc., — because they are unique within the theater family.”
Yet the week in the mountains has a more specific purpose. In the Colony’s aim to unite local and traveling artists for a week of cross-pollination and exchange, the program engages in some truly radical work. Becker, who also runs an arts and humanities non-profit dedicated in part to addressing the state’s high teen suicide rate, insists that one of the Colony’s main attributes is how it helps provide a much-needed artistic oasis in a community that can sometimes feel isolating. “The efficacy of arts and culture programming in battling depression, violence, despondency, etc., has been well documented — and theater and writing provide a particular, special community/collaborative involvement and orientation. More urban and populated states provide more ready access to such programming, [but] here in a state almost 4 times the size of NY, with a population of only a million, the importance of arts access and programming is vital to both private and public health,” she writes. “Colony is thus critical, in my opinion, to the homeostasis of this western place.”
Montana Repertory Theatre is serving a crucial purpose in its region. According to Vatshell, “without the work of Montana Rep’s National Tour and Education Outreach program, many residents of Montana would have limited or no access to live theater.” Like Montana Rep and the community in Missoula, there are thousands of administrators, practitioners, and enthusiasts deeply committed to the continued thriving of theater in their areas. Theatrical organizations based in New York and other urban centers do ourselves and our beloved craft a disservice by not continually amplifying their work
To learn more about Montana Rep, or the Missoula Colony, visit http://montanarep.org/. To bring a Traveling Masters to your community, email firstname.lastname@example.org.