By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The Montana Actors' Theater, a Hi-Line community theater group, changed its name from Northwest Ensemble Theater in 1997. Whether it was the new name, or perserverance, the group that started with two members now has 75. Nearly eight years, a film, and 36 theatrical productions after MAT took its new name in 1997, the well-practiced troupe has made its point - We're here. So says member Donald Mayer.
Mayer is directing and acting in MAT's fall production, "Rumors," a Neil Simon comedy now in rehearsal. The play opens Wednesday and runs Dec. 1-4 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 8-11 at the same time.
Mayer thinks MAT came into its own with "Hamlet" in 2000 - Mayer's first MAT production. Other MAT members have their own memories of when things clicked.
Sitting in the green room during a rehearsal, actors Grant Olson and Pam Veis agree that for them it was "Greater Tuna," a 1998 production.
"The second 'Greater Tuna,'" both said.
The first production of "Greater Tuna" came a few years before the second, but for Olson and Veis, it's a footnote in their reminiscence. The second production revived the group, hey said.
For two of the "Rumors" actors, Olson and Carly Booth, this is the second production of that play. Both were in the 1997 Havre High School production. Olson played Ken Gorman during his senior year. This time he plays Glenn Cooper, a politician who shows up at a hoity-toity New England party that begins with gunshots, plunges into confusion and ends with - well, you'll see.
Booth played the role of Cassie Cooper as a junior in high school, and will play the role again this year.
Both Olson and Booth have formal training in acting. Olson received a master's degree in dramatic arts from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and King's College London in 2003. Booth was a drama major at the University of Montana, graduating in 2003, and is applying to graduate schools now.
The two took familiar paths for aspiring actors, Olson to New York, Booth to Los Angeles. But this fall, they were both back in Havre.
Booth said she is glad to play the same role again. When she first played it in high school, she had just figured out that she loved acting, she said. Playing the role a second time, she tries to use the techniques she learned in school.
"It makes me feel I really learned something from school," she said.
Booth's audition for the role consisted of being spotted by Olson in a local bar.
The girl who was initially chosen for the role didn't take it, Olson said. Mayer was searching for a Cassie when Olson saw Booth and told Mayer, "Get down here!"
Booth said she is in no rush to return to Los Angeles, where she was auditioning and acting this summer. For now, she said, she is "floating" - substitute teaching and cleaning houses while she applies to schools.
"This has really been a saving grace," Booth said, thankful to have the play to give her structure.
It's not only by chance that Mayer found the actors he needed for his production.
Olson, despite having studied and worked in London and New York, and flown to South America earlier this year to shoot a movie, said he loves acting in Havre.
"I get a lot of artistic freedom here," Olson said. He added that he wants to direct a play in Havre. He knows the raw talent is here, even if there is sometimes a lack of training. He is also happy to work with a battle-tested, confident cast. Olson has acted in more than 20 MAT productions and kept in close contact when he was in London.
For his master's thesis in 2003, Olson invited 18 MAT members to London to put on a play written by MAT president Jay Pyette, "Dead of Winter."
Mayer was one of the actors to go to London. The trip proved a lot to him, he said. "To come from a town of 10,000 to go to a city of 11 million people" was incredible, he said. "We've proven we can do a show in a city where theater is big."
Pyette's play takes place in a small town based on his hometown of Chinook.
The group brought small-town Montana to London, and in this production, they bring what Mayer describes as a "pompous" New England setting to Havre. The play is a comedy, which is what Mayer said he believes Havre and Hi-Line audiences like to see. It is meant for adult audiences, Mayer warns, but the play does not push the envelope the way some MAT productions have in the past.
Olson said one play he thought tested Havre audiences was "God's Country." The play by Stephen Dietz is about white supremacists. At the end of the show, Olson said, "The audience didn't know if they should clap or not. They were so moved, or disgusted."
Last year MAT member Veis premiered "The Vagina Monologues" in Havre, Eve Ensler's collection of vignettes in which characters speak frankly about their sexuality. The show has been performed throughout the country, and the world, as part of V-Day, a movement to stop violence against women. Veis directed the first production last February. Tylyn Carmean will direct the second production this coming February.
Mayer is glad MAT can serve more than one purpose, but he said his main goal is to provide entertainment.
The rest of the "Rumors" cast includes actors with a variety of backgrounds. Krista Corner acted in Missoula Children's Theater productions in Sunburst, where she is from. She moved to Havre a few years ago, and her family has urged her to get back into acting. "Rumors" is her first MAT production. Corner plays Officer Pudney, the dry-witted police officer with a New York accent who comes to the house along with Officer Welch, played by Mayer, to investigate a report of gunshots. Corner said that when she was in the Navy she made friends with people from each part of New York. She said that helps her do the accent.
Veis, who plays Chris Gorman, acted in high school and college dramatic productions, but stopped acting for 13 years when she had young children. She joined MAT in 1998. She said that when she retires in 10 years she will pursue acting as a career.
Vicki VanCleave, who plays Cookie Cusack, acted for the first time in "God's Country," playing a number of roles, including a white supremacist. She said she had a two-page monologue that was "mortifying." But VanCleave got through it, and said the MAT community has been a major part of her experience in Havre. She is a clinical psychologist and came to Havre to work at Golden Triangle Mental Health.
Martin Holt, who plays Ernie Cusack, acted in one production in high school and then with some of the Montana State University-Northern productions. He said watching the 2000 production of "Hamlet" got him back into theater and he auditioned for the very next MAT production.
Mike Palmer auditioned after watching his son act in a show. "I was hanging around as a stage dad," Palmer said.
Matt Warner plays Leonard Ganz. Warner first joined MAT when the part of "a player," with no lines, was needed in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead." Warner was always on time for rehearsal, even without any lines, Mayer said. "Rumors" is Warner's sixth show. When he auditioned, Mayer said, he thought, "Matt is Lenny."
MSU-Northern no longer has acting classes, but the production end of the play is being handled by Drama 109, Mayer said. He did have some students audition, including MAT veteran Carmean, but he said a lot of the students just want to build sets, and the actors appreciate having the physical aspect taken care of.
After eight years of steady growth, Pyette hopes that MAT can have its own theater before long. He hopes that rather than ending its collaboration with Northern - which allows MAT full use of its Little Theatre - he hopes that with a theater, MAT could provide drama classes that the college used to have. He has a master's degree in drama from the University of Oregon and he said that with the number of trained actors around, there should be some classes available.
"It would be a wonderful thing for the community," Pyette said.