By Patrick Winderl
The Montana Actors' Theatre will get an opportunity next month to bring small-town life to the big city.
"The Dead of Winter," an original drama written by Havre theater patriarch Jay Pyette, will be performed in front of London audiences during a series of shows next month.
The 18-member cast and crew will travel to London after a limited production in Havre that begins next week. The show will be the first the group has performed overseas.
The show is set in small-town America and follows the events surrounding a mysterious stranger coming to town and how the locals respond to his presence.
"It's a very emotional script," Pyette said. "We're asking for an emotional commitment from our audience."
Directing the play is Grant Olson of Havre, a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and King's College London. No stranger to MAT, Olson has been involved in more than 20 productions with the group.
Directing a play in London is one of the requirements for Olson to earn a master's degree.
Olson said he is confidant that the group will perform well when compared with other shows in London's theater district.
"I asked this cast to go because I have seen their talent and it's up to par with everything that goes on in London," he said.
The cast and crew have been working for months to raise the money for the trip. Olson estimated the cost to be about $2,500 per person. He said the community has been supportive to their efforts.
Bernice Pyette donated a hand-made porcelain doll for the group to raffle off, said actor Tylyn Carmean.
Montana Style Interior contributed a number of home furnishings for a raffle. An interior decorating firm, Montana Style Interior is owned by Betsy Pollington, the mother of actor Samantha Pollington.
Bear Paw Mountain Outfitting was also responsible for raising a large amount of money, Carmean said. The company is operated by Olson's father, Eric Olson of south Havre.
A number of the actors have done things individually to raise cash for the trip, Carmean said.
"And then there's me," she said. "I'm telemarketing (at the Havre Daily News) so I don't starve over there."
The play has several recurring themes, including change, judgment, freedom and acceptance. Several scenes include strong language, and the difficult issues addressed during the story will be better appreciated by older audiences.
"It deals with a lot of modern issues and society's outlook on a lot of different things," Olson said, adding that the show "has been difficult to act in and direct at the same time."
Pyette, originally from Chinook, said the screenplay was at least in part inspired by his own experiences.
"I think every writer is influenced at some level" by his or her hometown, he said.
One of the goals of the script is to capture the essence of living in a small community, Pyette said. The play should be well-accepted by London audiences, but the message may hit closer to home when performed in Havre, he added.
The play is the first of Pyette's work to be performed on stage, although he says he has more in the works.
"I have one completed, one nearly finished and about 97 started," he said.
"The Dead of Winter" was performed in Havre four years ago, but this version is much different, Pyette said.
"The entire script has been rewritten," he said. "It was amazingly different before. This one is extensively shorter."
"We tightened it up to make everything consistent," Olson said. Actor Donald Mayer said he has enjoyed watching the script evolve.
"What I've really enjoyed about it is the fact that they did it in '99 and then they rewrote it," he said. "Now it's a lot sleeker. The audience is more involved because we perform so close to them. Being that close is great."
Mayer, who has both acted in and directed MAT productions, said he is happy to be acting in "The Dead of Winter."
"It's fun to become an actor again. When you do a play, there's directing, stage managing, tech work. But acting is by far the funnest of them all. And of course there's going to London. The cherry on top of the sundae."
The show will run in Havre June 18-21 in the Havre High School auditorium. Space is limited to 120 seats per night. The cost is $10 for adults and $8 for seniors and students. The proceeds will go to help offset the cost of performing in London.
"The Dead of Winter" will run in London July 8-26, Tuesdays through Saturdays. The show will take place in the Union Theatre in London's Theatre District. The venue is one of about 60 in the area, Olson said. The cast will stay in dorms at King's College during the trip.
In anticipation of the smaller theater in London, MAT built a scale replica on the stage of the Havre High School auditorium.
The production has not been without some hurdles, Olson said. One of the problems arose when he attempted to secure the necessary props for the play.
Several scenes in the drama involve a handgun. The United Kingdom has very strict rules involving personal possession of guns, which made finding one to use as a prop difficult, Olson said. He even went so far as to try to rent one from a company that provides props to theater groups.
"A bunch of Americans coming over and wanting to rent a handgun," Olson said. "They were like, 'Yeah, right.'"
The problem was solved when Olson was able to procure one from a London friend.
Another problem that required a creative solution was finding someone to fill the role of a young girl in the play. Taking an actor from Montana was not realistic as no parent was willing to let a 7-year-old girl go on a month-long trip to England, Olson said.
Hiring an actor in London was also out of the question because strict labor laws would have prevented the child from attending every rehearsal and performance.
The dilemma required that Pyette revise the script to include an older character.
Both Olson and Mayer said they are a little nervous about the show's reception in London.
"I'm a bit nervous about what the critics will say," Olson said. "It's my first time directing over there."
"The one thing about it is that we're going to be critiqued," Mayer added. "We're not going to please everybody. But that's theater. Some people will like it, others won't."
Gearing up for the month-long trip has been a ton of work, many associated with the play have said. Late-night rehearsals have become the norm rather than the exception, and long hours are put in by everyone, Olson said.
Many of the scenes in the play have been practiced out of sequence, he added. Just like a movie is shot in pieces, the actors have practiced individual scenes to make more efficient use of time, he said.
"It was interesting," Olson said. "When it first came together, everyone was like 'Wow, so this is how it goes.'"