Written by Cindy Stillwell, Producer/Co-Director of Bard in the Backcountry
May 2015 saw the broadcast premiere of Bard in the Backcountry on Montana PBS and the film continues to be broadcast on a rotating schedule. We are currently waiting to hear about a national release through American Public Television. The show was met with excellent feedback as viewers across the state got an inside look at what goes into the production of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (MSIP) summer tours. This small regional theater company has been performing Shakespeare all over the state of Montana for over forty years and has a loyal fan base that spans generations.
I was drawn to making this film because at its heart it is the story of Shakespeare’s relevance in modern rural America. This theater company sends the season’s actors on the road for over two months each summer – that is ten cast members that do everything! They haul their props, stage, sound system, costumes, make up, wigs, and the programs they hand out each night. They set everything up, get themselves ready, do the show, then after a quick change, tear the set down—by that time it’s after dark. They do this in a different place each night, like a road show you imagine from yester-year, rolling into town, setting up and moving on.
As I started research for the film, I was really surprised at the devotion the rural communities have towards this theater company. I had the privilege of being invited into many people’s homes — the various school teachers, ranchers, women’s groups, art advocate groups—all people who feel it’s important to expose their communities to the works of Shakespeare.
In some towns they organize people to house the actors in their homes for the night—often this will be in towns that are so small there simply are no motels. We wanted to be sure viewers had a sense of this dedication, alongside the incredible amount of work this small theater company puts into their productions—and that they have done this for over forty years.
In the end we decided the best way to tell this story was to follow the ten actors cast for the summer. We would follow them through the first read-through, to first performance and then hit the road with them. This way you get a sense of who they are at the beginning of this journey, as they begin rehearsals in Bozeman, MT, at Montana State University, where the company is based. We meet the professional team of theater crafts-people that work for each of the two productions the actors will perform, costume designers, drapers, props, wigs, voice and dialect coaches, fight choreographers and the directors of the plays.
My co-director on the film, Tom Watson, is also the long time set designer for the company, so we had this incredible inside access to the whole process. We also sat down with each of the actors to talk about the life of an actor and what they expect from the tour.
As luck would have it, during the season we filmed, only two of the actors had been on the tour before; most had never been to Montana – some not even to the American West. So we see these actors who are just starting their careers become touched by the characters who come to their shows, who know the plays inside and out, and come to see Shakespeare every summer. The actors on the tour are changed by the experience, not only the incredible physical rigor of the tour, but also the way the performances mean so much to the communities they visit.
The very existence of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks theater company becomes a real testament to the relevance of theater art in the outback of America, how Shakespeare can reach people in the modern world. It is also a statement about the life of an actor, who sets aside ‘real life’ to tour for three months; in fact, what is ‘real life’ to an actor? The tour is a rite of passage for each of these characters.
I am happy that the film presents the tour in such a way that the viewer is invited to think about all of these things, and also to see the Montana landscape as a backdrop. It is so grand it can make human beings seem really small–even more reason to cling to the theater, comforting in the way it connects us to each other.