Setting the Scene

Montana Rep celebrates 50 years with trip to China


Categories: Alumni , Campus , Academic , Arts

Montana Rep actors perform a scene from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which the theater is taking to China this spring.
Montana Rep actors perform a scene from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which the theater is taking to China this spring.

The strains of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” echo through the high-ceilinged room in Schreiber Gymnasium, tucked against Mount Sentinel at the University of Montana. Someone launches a football in the air, and it ricochets off the wall, nearly taking out several crew members. Everyone scrambles through their scenes with the occasional, “I’m sorry, line?”

UM’s Montana Repertory Theatre is finally putting together all the scenes of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Two weeks later, the group of 19 will pile into rental SUVs at 3 a.m. and drive to Seattle, en route to Beijing.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Montana Rep, which began as a professional touring company and has performed everywhere from a gymnasium floor in small-town Plains, Montana, to an old 1,000-seat opera house in Galveston, Texas.

While three members of the tour are big-city professional actors from the Actors’ Equity Association, UM students comprise most of the remaining cast.

“The talent level at the University is so high that we can occasionally find students who will go into the lead and nobody notices,” says artistic director Greg Johnson. “They get the same reviews as the professionals.”

Johnson knows what to look for. He brought two decades of Broadway and off-Broadway experience with him when he came from New York to Montana in 1990. For 27 years, he has assembled casts for the Montana Rep with a full range of talents and ages.

Morgan Solonar, at 20 years old, is the youngest member of the Montana Rep and one of two undergraduates. When Johnson asked her to act in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Solonar didn’t hesitate.

Working with professional actors has been humbling and invaluable, she says. Yet the rehearsals are fun and don’t feel like work to her.

“When you put all those theater people together, no matter the experience, it’s always hilarious and crazy things always happen,” she says.

Johnson also hand-picked Missoula community member Jeff Medley, 43, who says acting in “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been challenging but fun. He especially likes working with grad students and recent grads.

“I learn something every time,” Medley says. “Even though I didn’t go to school for it.”

While in China, the group will perform five times: twice at a high school, once at a university and two more times in the smaller inland town of Chongqing. Side-panels displaying Chinese characters will explain the scenes, although most audience members will be proficient in English.

Johnson, who also is a UM faculty member, says touring is always a great way for students to learn about the professional world.

“It’s fun for me because I get to see them grow up as students, and I get to send them on the road and watch them flourish and blossom as really strong professional actors,” he says. “I’m in a great position for happiness and satisfaction.”

Story by Courtney Brockman '17

comments powered by Disqus