50 Years of MSIP

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Imaginative Hope

As audience members look through their program each year, there are usually photos of favorite plays, alumni who they might recognize from past seasons, or a brief rundown on the history of the company. But there’s this thing in almost any theatrical endeavor that we perceive but rarely talk about and isn’t included in those notes we read in those short minutes after arriving and before the play starts. It permeates every stitch, every syllable, every sword fight we experience when bringing a story to the stage … all of us together. 

 It could be called Hope. 

Imaginative Hope

As audience members look through their program each year, there are usually photos of favorite plays, alumni who they might recognize from past seasons, or a brief rundown on the history of the company. But there’s this thing in almost any theatrical endeavor that we perceive but rarely talk about and isn’t included in those notes we read in those short minutes after arriving and before the play starts. It permeates every stitch, every syllable, every sword fight we experience when bringing a story to the stage … all of us together. 

 It could be called Hope. 

It is a kind of imaginative hope that runs through the foundation of those truly impactful and meaningful theatrical experiences and one that is central to the story of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks.  

There’s the hope the audience members bring with them that a play will transport them for the few short hours, that lets them add their imaginations to the mix with those of countless other artists to bring a play to life. 

You may be hard pressed to find an art form that is more reliant on this hopeful form of speculation than theatre, since the whole process is fundamentally rooted in uncertainty: will all the parts come together, will the story prove true or funny, will the audience come at all, and will we be able to pull off this little miracle together.

It requires an almost Quixotic hope that it is going to work and that it is worthwhile to keep trying night after night to seek out something excellent.  

Each night, the people who have worked for months without an audience tip at the same windmill as that brand new audience coming to see the show all in the name of seeing what is going to happen, what is going to be possible at this moment, with these people, in this place. In an instant it happens, is unique, then is gone till the next show, the next town, the next year.

There may not be a theatre company in the world that sits so squarely and marvelously inside that uncertainty and hope than Montana Shakespeare in the Parks.

Though throughout the summer or the school year, the costumes stay the same and the actors say the same words, those moments we share never will be the same again. The play is just a series of shared moments between the people on the stage and in the audience, there for just a brief two hour’s traffic before everybody packs it up and tries to find the next day’s best version of what we all just made together.

Unlike a lot of theatres, the company is blessed with a long and meaningful relationship with the audience. There’s a knowledge that one of the best audiences you’ve ever had the privilege of working with and for is going to be there that day.   

We may not always know if the weather is going to hold and there’s always the risk of rogue wildlife or kids or frisbees joining the action on stage. Anybody who has toured Montana or seen a Montana Shakespeare in the Parks production knows it’s different doing theatre out here.

Much of that starts with Bruce Jacobson’s idea that art in general, and theatre in particular, should be free and available to all the people out west. He took something that is often traded like a commodity, and sought to transform the company into something more akin to a fundamental right and basic service to the citizens of a community. 

They had done something like this in New York’s Central Park.  For a while, they took shows out on the back of flatbed trucks to bring the stories to the streets. They tried that again recently, and there are a few companies who have taken a swing as well. 

But few, maybe none, have been doing it like Montana Shakes, for as long as Montana Shakes, and as well over those fifty years. 

With three tours and additional and ancillary programming and shows, MSIP offers almost 12 months of theatre and outreach each year, seeking to remove those traditional barriers that keep folks from coming to plays, bringing the work to the communities and offering them in their parks, schools, and familiar places free of charge all year round. 

Much of this expansion of reach and deepening in mission happened while our beloved Joel Jahnke was the artistic director. Joel led the company for almost 34 years, overseeing growing the tour to more cities, bringing in world class actors and directors and shepherding the innovative education programs into a vital part of the company. 

Joel was my boss when I joined the company in 2003 for the most impactful and important job I have ever had. I had seen the company while working as a wildlife biologist in Red Lodge. It’s a long story how you go from chasing elk in the Beartooths to carrying a spear at Chicago Shakespeare, but that’s where they found me and took a chance on me as a young and epically green actor.

Kevin Asselin was one of the company managers on that tour too, along with an ensemble of actors, designers, directors, stage managers, technicians, and host families and audience members across the region that changed my life. 

And my story is not that unique. Most folks have a transformational experience like that. Across all the years, across all the artists, it comes back to this last best place and some of the best folks in the world who make a commitment to stories and imagination, and art, and hope, in a time when it is so urgently necessary. 

There are people and families across the state that remain meaningful parts of my life to this day. Twenty years since my first tour, I now have former students joining the company. 

When they ask me what they should expect, I share that telling stories is a privilege and a service, and doing it for this company means you are an ambassador for something bigger than yourselves. If you let yourself be open to this place, these people, you will be fundamentally changed because of their quality and grit and good heartedness. 

And like Joel, I would struggle keeping down the tears because of the quiet knowing of how powerful the experience of meeting you all each evening in your parks or each morning in your schools would truly be. 

Because the story and history of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is intrinsically tied to the stories and history of you, the audience. It’s a collaboration and commitment bonded by hope that the show is going to go on and we’re going to find a way together to make sure it does.

Our hope is that we will see you this summer. And the next. And for fifty more years. How fortunate and how wonderful to be together again. Enjoy our shows, and please feel all our gratitude and thanks for helping making it happen once again.