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Hi-Line Living: Havre acts

MAT director talks local theater

 

January 27, 2017

Grant Olson was born and raised on a cattle ranch south of Havre and caught the acting bug as a freshman at Havre High School.

He continued his training at Montana State University-Northern, studied in London, twice, acted in New York, did an acting stint in Guyana, South America, and directed and acted in Missoula, before coming back full circle to where it all started - Havre.

Olson has a text and performance doctorate from Kingston University London with a focus on directing. As production manager and associate artistic director of Montana Actors' Theatre, he brings years of training and experience to the local theater circuit.

His job, he said, is to ensure that each production has what it needs.

"So I'll come in to rehearsals and see if they're the quality we need them to be, offer my advice and expertise if directors have any questions," he said. "I help design the sets and help manage the space."

Olson was designing a set on a large sketchpad Monday afternoon in the Montana State University-Northern theater. He was sitting at a long wooden table that was part of the "12 Angry Men" and "12 Angry Women" set.

Although Olson has no problem conveying a philosophical frame for the dramatic arts, as a high school boy, he said, the appeal was far more practical at first.

"It was great when I was a freshman. All the senior girls were doing my makeup. That's what first got me," he said, laughing.

But now, years removed from those freshman high school years, and having had plenty of time to portray characters of all kinds, Olson says acting goes beyond pretending.

“It’s interesting to be able to live in another person’s mindset for a small period of time,” he said.

The experience of being someone else builds empathy, he said.

“Acting allows a different mindset, which gives a greater worldview,” Olson said.

As an actor, he said, he has had the opportunity to play a wide variety of characters.

“I played Robert Jay Mathews, the founder of the Order, the neo-Nazi group — as far away from me as you can possible be,” he said.

On the other side of the moral spectrum, Olson said, is playing Lord Macduff in “Macbeth,” “you know high morals and sword fights.”

“Sword fights,” Olson added, laughing, “were always fun in theater.”

Olson said his latest character, Juror Three in “12 Angry Men” — “the main antagonist” — is also unlike him.

“This guy is completely emotionally driven and angry. I’m not like that. It’s strange playing this guy who’s bullying and angry — but it’s fun,” he said, smiling and laughing again.

That connection between the character and the actor, that’s what Olson said he tries to teach.

“One of the things I’m concerned with the students is this emotional connection because what we’re asking actors to do is be emotionally connected truthfully to the experience,” he said. “It’s one of the things we look at — how you can get into the character and get out of the character in a healthy way.”

MAT has grown since its first plays in the late ’90s. The season starts with a Death by Chocolate fundraiser dinner in September, where a large portion of the money for the entire season is raised.

Twelve productions are put on during the season, one almost every month. In the summer, MAT puts on children’s acting camps.

Work has already begun on the news season, Olson said.

“We’re starting to get ideas from the community for what they want to see,” he said.

The way shows are chosen, he said, is two-fold. Yes, it’s important to give the community what it wants, but, he said, “We also like challenging the community.”

“Sometimes we’ll throw in a show in the season that we know isn’t going to pack the house the way ‘Mary Poppins’ did,” he said. “But we think it challenges the sensibilities of the community, and that’s one of the great things theater can do — make you sit back and think.”

Olson says Havre is very supportive of MAT, and the plan is to continue putting out quality productions.

“We’re looking at some classical American drama, Arthur Miller, or Eugene O’Neil, or Tennessee Williams — classic heavy, hard-hitting dramas,” he said.

There are also plans to get grants for children's and youth theater, he said.

MAT is just in Havre, but it stretches in the summer.

“In the summer, we tour more with our children’s theater to Harlem, to Malta, we’re hoping to go out to Rocky Boy this summer,” he said. “We do a children’s camp in Chinook. Summer program is expanding, but our main stage shows are mostly here.”

As for his traveling ways, Olson said it’s hard to tell if he and his family are here to stay, but he knows one thing for sure, and that is that he enjoys training young actors and directing.

“We might stay a while,” he said.

 

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