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The Bard comes to the cowboys

For 32 years, troupe has taken Shakespeare to rural Montana towns
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ranchers from miles away lounge in lawn chairs under a canopy of cottonwoods, munching on Indian tacos and homemade pie, as “The Taming of the Shrew,” unfolds. Babies sleep on blankets spread in the grass, while older children watch, eyes wide, or dart among the trees with friends.

Many have never seen a production such as this, and appreciate the chance to see Shakespearean theater — or any professional theater for that matter — performed live in this north-central Montana farming town of about 1,500, surrounded by wheat fields, the chalky bluffs of the Missouri River and not much else.

“We have so little culture here, besides the Lewis and Clark history thing,” says longtime resident Karen Gillespie.

Welcome to Shakespeare, cowboy style.

Bozeman’s Shakespeare in the Parks theater company was created in 1973 to bring free productions to rural, underserved communities that dot the Northern Rockies. Since then, the company has traveled over more than 250,000 miles of dirt and paved roads and performed before more than half a million people.

It is one of more than 100 Shakespeare companies and festivals in the United States, from the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival in Honolulu to Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, Mass., from the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego to the Park Players in Birmingham, Ala.

Bozeman’s schedule this summer features 68 performances of “Shrew” and Shakespeare’s late romance, “Cymbeline,” in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, ending Labor Day weekend.

Corporate sponsors such as NorthWestern Energy and Bresnan Communications paid for most of this year’s tour, but the troupe, operating under a budget of about $400,000, also received money from Montana State University, government grants and the communities where they performed.

“At its core, we bring Shakespeare to people who otherwise wouldn’t have it in rural areas,” says Joel Jahnke, who has been the company’s artistic director since 1980.

“I like to say that people in Birney, Mont., have probably seen more Shakespeare than most of New York City. They know good theater from bad theater, and that’s because we’ve brought it to them.”

Truly a local productionBarbara McCabe brought visiting family from Oregon to the recent Fort Benton performance. Although she says it can be hard for residents to get out in the summer — “this is a farming community” — the packed audience of several hundred in Old Fort Park was testament to the program’s popularity.

“I think it’s probably easier to see a performance like this than to actually read Shakespeare,” a smiling McCabe says.

The idea for the traveling troupe came to Bruce Jacobsen at dinner one night, Jahnke says. Jacobsen, then director of the theater department at Montana State, started out with 12 student actors performing in seven cities around the state.

Little has changed since then. Today, an energetic troupe of 11 young actors, hand-picked from applicants nationwide, travels by trailer to each town. Once there, they set up the stage and sound system, don their costumes and makeup, hand out programs and then perform the play. When the show is over, they strike the set and pack up. Usually, they spend the night at a hotel or in locals’ homes.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” says Jjana Valentiner, 30, who has appeared in “The Importance of Being Earnest” with the Arena Stage theater company in Washington, D.C., as well as “A Chaste Maid at Cheapside” with The Shakespeare Theatre. This is her first summer tour with the Bozeman company. She’s playing the elder daughter in “The Taming of the Shrew” and an attending lady and medicine woman in “Cymbeline.”

“It helps you feel an ownership in what you’re doing and a responsibility,” she says.

Several actors called it the most grueling production they’ve ever experienced. Many were shirtless and wore gloves and cowboy hats as they labored in 90-degree heat to erect a tiered stage and towering villa for “Shrew.” The sweat flowed, but so did the bottled water and Ziploc bags of fruit and cookies the locals donated.

Small-town generosity is common on the tour, but still surprising to newcomers. Twenty-five-year-old actor Sarah Sokolovic was stunned when a woman in Birney, the tour’s most remote stop, made her cinnamon rolls with soy milk and egg replacement to conform to Sokolovic’s vegan diet. Locals have also fixed broken-down vehicles, changed flat tires and even helped rebuild the set.

“We belong now,” says Matt Foss, 25, an actor in his third season with Bozeman’s who has worked with the American Theatre Company and Chicago Shakespeare.

“They embrace us, and they embrace us out of principle,” says Foss, who has been known to take a dip in nearby water holes just minutes before call.

'A big family'The performances are highly anticipated each year, and have become so popular among tourists that some schedule their vacations around the schedule, Jahnke says. Famous alumni such as Bill Pullman, who most recently appeared on Broadway in Edward Albee’s “The Goat,” and Tom Hewitt, nominated for a Tony Award for best actor in a musical for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” return often to watch performances. Jahnke says he regularly gets notes and surprise visits from former members.

“It’s a big family, and that family just continues to grow every year,” he says.

This summer’s group works particularly well together, company manager James Houton says. Many say the experience has made them better actors, renewed their passion for theater and given them an appreciation for the West’s simple, stark beauty.

And after three years on the tour, not much fazes Foss and his fellow actors. Children, cats, dogs and even ducks have wandered on stage, interrupting dramatic moments, and actors have ad-libbed their way through fallen props, lightning strikes and comments from the audience. Once, a dead owl fell onto the stage, but was quickly scooped up by an actor with little fanfare.

“There’s no way you can go about your job selfishly after this tour,” Foss says.