By Donald P. Mayer
Editor's note: Eighteen Havre residents traveled to London for a month to present Grant Olson's production of Jay Pyette's "The Dead of Winter." Olson directed the play to meet the final requirements for earning a master's degree from a combined program of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and King's College. This story was written by Donald P. Mayer, who was one of the actors in the production.
When the people in Havre are asked how they spent the month of July, most would reply, "Hot, and spent the time inside to keep cool, or took a drive in the Bear Paws."
For 18 individuals, the month was very different. Instead of driving around Bear Paw Lake, they flew over the Atlantic Ocean to the British Isles and the destination was London, England. The trip was not by any means a group vacation. It was a chance, in the words of Kevin Spacey, "for American actors to prove their salt on a London stage."
With Jay Pyette's "The Dead of Winter" in tow and Grant Olson's master's degree nearing completion, the Montana Actors' Theatre spent the month of July at the Union Theatre in the Borough of Southwark (pronounced Suffolk), and this is our story:
London is famous for numerous things: originality, history, breath-taking landmarks and culture, to name a few. But what the city is noted for, above all else, is that it proudly boasts itself as the theater capital of the world.
"Absolutely," said Pyette, who has been to London twice before. "It is bred into their way of life and it is where it all began."
So even before we left Havre, we all knew that we must be on top of our game plan, and then some.
"The Dead of Winter" was performed in Havre June 18-21 as a precursor of what our job would be in London during the month of July - 15 shows total.
We flew from Calgary to Chicago on June 30, then from Chicago to London Heathrow. The first few days in London were no picnic by any means for anyone in the group.
We were all recovering from a 4,200-mile flight, hitting Victoria Station with all of our luggage at the height of rush hour, plus climate and time change (seven hours) and then walking the 20-plus minutes - uphill, mind you - to our dorm rooms from Denmark Hill Station.
Frank Payn, who has traveled extensively, said, "I have never felt so exhausted in my life. Every bone in my body ached and it was no fun for my bum knee either."
That's just the beginning.
Before we could use our space, the group practiced at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. While most of us warmed up in small and intimate rooms, two of our members were on a wild goose chase to locate critical materials needed to build our crucial set centerpiece - the tree. Tech gods Brian Gregoire and Sean Williams, with the assistance of production manager Steve Miller, came through and their task was then to build the tree from scratch. Later, when it was complete, a group would walk it 2 miles from RADA to the Union in a city the size of London, Europe's largest city - not exactly easy. We then had to prep the theater as well, which meant we had to make it look just like our stage back home in Havre.
So moving flats, lifting heavy cast-iron framed seats, building new benches, painting them and the floor, and most importantly, cleaning, were essential to our stay at the Union. This onslaught was completed in an overall period of 24 hours' time.
With the first week down and our stage at the ready, the next step in the quest was that of the production itself. Sunday and Monday were days off and you could do whatever you wanted (without involving any "bobbies.") Anyone could go see things like Regents Park, the British Museum, the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, Tate Modern, matinees, etc. But on production days it was a 6 p.m. call - no excuses.
July 8 was our opening night and it was absolutely magical. To be in London on this stage and acting in front of Royal Academy of Dramatic Art professors and students was widely accepted by the cast, but the critics are the ones who will make or break a show.
So they came, from magazines (Time Out London), newspapers (The Stage and Southwark News), and the Internet (Reviews Gate London and Theatre World Internet). They arrived but by no means did they agree with every concept of the production.
But they all had positive things to say and their message was concise: See the show. Not too bad for a group of actors from a community of 10,000 performing in a city of 11 million. By far the huge highlight of the first week was when a group from Havre - Jerry Malkuch, Gerry Veis, Martin Holt, Dave and Diane Hamilton, and Grant's sister, Erin Olson - took time to arrange vacations in order to support our efforts. It was a total surprise and was embraced with open arms by the cast. To have these special individuals come just as far as we had, to be in the Union with us, and to share the same experience as we had was fitting and was a great way to close out the first week's run.
The last fortnight in London was as different as the previous two weeks. By now, certain members of the cast had mastered the London Underground and night buses, so for any of us who wanted to get "locked in" after 11 p.m. at a pub, go to clubs in Soho or go to house parties five miles north of where our central London map stopped became a normal part of the time spent there.
Of course we all understood why we were there and even though we were all having the time of our lives, the production always came first and foremost. So the rules were still as simple as when we arrived: Go have your fun but you'd better be ready to perform. For, as they say, "The show must go on."
Another highlight in the last leg of our trip was former Havreite Jared Brandon. He decided he had a few days of vacation to "waste" and flew in from Chicago. His comic relief was a welcome addition to our stay, plus was much needed and appreciated by everyone in our cast.
With the final show on Saturday, July 26, the Montana Actors' Theatre had definitely left its mark on London's west end theatre district.
Before we left for London, people told Grant's parents, Eric and Teresa ("Mom") Olson, that our planned trip would never get off the ground. How wrong they were. The realization of what actually transpired for us was clear - we did it! On Monday evening, July 28, we all sat together at an exquisite Turkish restaurant named Tas with not only the entire cast but with Sean and Sasha Regan, the Union's owners, Steve Miller and a bartender who put up with our antics for many a night, Ben DeWynter. Though the flight time the next morning began at 6 a.m., we all had to go out one more time and enjoy the London nightlife. Some of the cast sat in a street and sang the American classic "Tear in my Beer" and made 55 pence (though I think it came from pity rather than musical talent!)
So that morning we flew from Heathrow to O'Hare and from Chicago to Calgary, then drove five hours to home sweet home.
As impressive and educational as London was, you didn't hear one complaint from any cast member about our return to Havre, back to our famlies, jobs and lifestyles.
The trip to London was so much more than this article and pictures. Ask anyone from the cast about the journey and they will sit and chat for hours on end about what they experienced. The one aspect that no one would ever deny, but accept and embrace, is that without our sponsors, both individual and corporate, the trip and production would have never happened and our dreams of acting on a London stage would have been extinguished. From the cast and crew, who made the trip to the Union Theatre in Southwark, we honor and thank you, for if your love and commitment to the cast of "The Dead of Winter" was not present, we would not have July in London, nor where the Montana Actors' Theatre is headed in the future.