BY: KATE MORRIS
Photos BY: DANIEL SCOTT MORRIS
Art & Surprise: DIY Performance in Missoula
It is 11:00 p.m. on a Saturday, and I put on paint-stained clothes to go spend the rest of my night in the Crystal Theatre. I hadn’t pulled an all-nighter in over two years. Throwing on my battered pair of Chuck Taylors, a line from The Godfather: III flits through my head: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” I smile, for the occasion is perhaps as urgent, but not nearly as dire. In fact, spending all night in a room that smells of dust, paint and burning cellophane is cause for celebration. At 11:00 p.m. the room is bare and black, but by 6:00 a.m. it will be an element of art.
For those who attend any theatre or dance performance, the idea that what’s seen on stage is the same as what’s seen in the First Friday art galleries could be a novel one. Yet it’s true. Local visual artists like Adelaide Every, Abe Coley and Gretel Stoudt work quietly on their pieces when they are not at their other jobs, and then they find a place to show their work. Local artists like Rebecca Shaffer, Josh Wagner, Jes Mullette and I do the same thing. We want to make art, so we make it ourselves in typical DIY fashion.
Let’s review what we know about DIY, or “Do It Yourself.” From Wikipedia: “DIY culture is a broad term that refers to a wide range of elements in non-mainstream society, such as grassroots activism, independent music, art and film.”
Is art therefore not inherently DIY? Entertainment, however, is not. Much of the entertainment our culture pursues is fed to us through screens as a symbol of our mainstream society. The fact that theatre and dance are not just art forms but also entertainment means that there is a vital need for DIY performances in any community.
Enter the money. For theatres, profit is only made when the people come to see the performance. Missoula’s popular venues present a variety of excellent, well-known plays and ballets. These excellent plays and dance performances are usually pieces seen before, most likely more than once. There is room for creativity in the execution, but no opportunity for genuine surprise. To surprise an audience, the piece they are watching must tell a new story, or show a different side and elicit a new reaction based on new stimuli.
Josh Wagner, a local playwright and author, heartily agrees. “Independent theatre can incorporate anything and everything,” he emails while working on a draft of his new play. “It’s a dynamic and dramatic human sculpture. And when the performance is over it’s gone. You can’t rewind. So it becomes an offering to the realm of memory. Everything is live and therefore risky and therefore dangerous and therefore charged with all sorts of delicious energy. We can bring the audience into that energy as a character.”
Missoulians attend DIY performances and First Friday art walks seeking new and inclusive stimuli. Unfortunately, new stimuli is untested and thus a poor investment. In Missoula there are five theatres in which to stage a play: the Wilma, Missoula Children’s Theatre, the PARTV building at UM, the University Theatre, and the Crystal Theatre. These buildings cost thousands of dollars to operate; a cost usually charged in whole or part to the companies performing the work. This overhead influences product and most importantly, play selection. To keep the enterprise economically feasible, these theatres must fill their seasons with performances guaranteed to sell tickets. Theatre tickets cost more than a movie, and many of the audiences that independent theatre artists are trying to reach are just as happy watching a screen. “The most disappointing thing is that it doesn’t get a fraction of the attention that movies and TV are getting.” Wagner types, “Interactive theatre has so much more to offer, but we’ve become content with our passive experiences.”
How can one even make DIY theatre in this town? The artist needs approximately $500-$2500 to show a work they are still not sure anyone will like. Sometimes innovative non-profits or wealthy benefactors will step in and foster a project, but usually the production team only has a budget to cover venue and operation costs. To make the art itself, you must do it yourself.
Rebecca Shaffer has been making independent theatre in Missoula for three years. Since separating from the Montana Actor’s Theatre this summer, she is a freelance theatre artist, as well as a graduate student in theatre at the University of Montana. While the Montana Actor’s Theatre did finance two seasons of shows at the Crystal, the budgets were often quite limited. To make a product local audiences would pay attention to required many trips to Home Resource, a local building materials re-use center and an essential part of Missoula DIY, as well as weeks of long nights and risk.
“It requires a great deal of passion and preparation, because you have so much freedom— and sometimes freedom is difficult, structurally,” states Shaffer. She is the reason why I went back to the all-night set building parties. “You also generally don’t have a budget or infrastructural support, which means you must be organized enough to fill your role beyond the book. Directors may be required to advertise, build, gather a production team, whatever needs to be done. Same with actors.”
DIY theatre is a team sport. Missoula’s independent theatre community is small enough that everybody works on everybody else’s projects. The role specialization seen in larger theatres cannot sustain itself when everyone on the production team has at least one other job and no one has any money. The amount of dedication needed can indeed remind one of the mafia, at times. “Independent theatre lends itself to creating highly cohesive ensembles. You build great relationships, and if those relationships work, you keep creating together,” Shaffer adds.
A love for the full process of making a performance happen is why we put ourselves through it. The act of sharing what we know with the men and women we coexist with is why we keep doing it again and again. “I think we kind of contextualize rewarding and non-rewarding by how difficult each situation is. What’s rewarding in Missoula is only that because it’s Missoula, and that it is also me, you know what mean?” Jes Mullette chuckles at her last statement. She started making dance performances on her own when she graduated from the UM School of Theatre and Dance.
“I am able to share the clearest aspects of my area of interest (dance) with the people who matter most to me. I think we’re pushed to places like larger cities to gain more significance, more recognition. But what is more important for me is exploring what I know, and sharing it with people I actually know: whether it’s the chick serving me coffee at the bakery, or my 95-year-old grandfather. There’s a history there. The frustrating aspect about that is that I don’t get paid for it. In my home, for the people I love, it is not valued in a monetary sense.”
Currently, Mullette is pursuing a graduate degree in choreography at the University of California - Riverside. The realization that making one’s own theatre in Missoula is not a fiscally viable livelihood is the reason many talented artists move away to pursue their careers or terminal degrees.
A DIY show can be very successful to the point that an audience really likes it and it makes enough money to cover the out-of-pocket expenses one generally accrues. However, even in Missoula where theatre is by no means prevalent, a piece must be amazing or it will be forgotten with the changing seasons. A good independent play must be an all-out surprise attack on the audience who is silently, secretly begging for it. The ideas are out there, and they are worth the time it takes me to write and rewrite until the art is ready to show. Then it’s time to take my change to the bank, call in all my friends and make it happen in the middle of the long dark night.
Kate Morris is a local playwright and graduate of the University of Montana School of Theatre and Dance. She has been making independent theatre since 2008.