Montana Rep cast members hike part of the Great Wall. (Photo by James Drysdale)

Cast Away

Montana Rep Heads to China for 50-Year Anniversary

By Courtney Brockman

The first time the Montana Repertory Theatre at the University of Montana performed “To Kill a Mockingbird,” racial tensions ran high as the O.J. Simpson trial wrapped up. More than a decade later, the dress rehearsal for the second UM tour of the signature piece about race and justice took place the same day the United States inaugurated its first black president.

This year, the Montana Rep celebrated its 50th anniversary with another “Mockingbird” milestone — a tour of the play in China.

What originally began in 1967 as a regional touring company comprising UM theater students soon went national, with professionals from across the country joining the troupe in 1975.

And Montana Rep Artistic Director Greg Johnson has been along for that ride for 27 years.

“I never expected to be here so long,” he says.

Johnson’s accent places him from New York. He lived there for the first 20 years of his career, running the full gamut of theater experiences, from Broadway to off-Broadway.

Johnson says that although he had been a child actor, he didn’t think he would eventually do it for a living. He thought about going to law school but instead became a theater major at New York University, building connections within the professional world and falling in love with the stage.

“I got to learn how the big boys do it,” he says.

Montana Rep actors Hannah Appell and Jeff Medley perform a scene from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Hannah Appell and Jeff Medley perform a scene from

“To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Johnson carried all that experience with him to Montana. In 1990, he wanted to try something new and responded to the Rep’s call for an artistic director. He thought it would only last a year, but he fell in love with Missoula, the University, Montana and the job.

Johnson knows what to look for in his actors. Since 1994, he has worked on national tours and assembled casts for the Montana Rep with a full range of talents and ages. To find professional actors from the Actors’ Equity Association, he holds auditions in Seattle, Los Angeles and New York. Typically, three actors star in each show. The rest of the cast is mostly UM students.

Johnson says students often play the lead, but the audience does not notice and gives them the same reviews as professionals. “And the professionals really enjoy working with the students, because the professionals are reminded of the fire they had when they were young, so it’s a great back-and-forth,” he says.

Morgan Solonar is one of those students. A 20-year-old junior majoring in theater, she is the youngest member of Montana Rep and one of two undergraduates.

Solonar’s first acting role, at age 2, was as a sheep in a Nativity play. She interned in UM’s Missoula Colony summer playwriting festival as a high schooler and later became a part of the Montana Rep. When asked by Johnson to tour with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Solonar says she was ecstatic, flattered and grateful.

“Are you kidding me?” Solonar says. “Who would ever say no to this? It’s a Montana Rep tour, it’s international, and I get to play a sort of lead character? Why would I say no to that?”

Solonar says the rehearsals are fun and quite the experience when all kinds of people come together to create art. Working with the professional actors especially has been humbling but invaluable to her, she says.

Students learn a lot on the road, Johnson says. As a faculty member in UM’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, he sees firsthand the professional growth in his students.

“All the students who go out on the Rep, they come back, and they’re very different,” Johnson says.

In choosing actors to tour, Johnson also considers who will be good on the road. He says he looks for people who can help create a positive environment, because touring is hard work.

National tours usually run from the end of January to the middle of April, and everyone works as both crew members and actors every day. They spend all day setting up, usually until 5 p.m., and then have about an hour and a half to get ready for the show. They must load the truck after each performance. Working well together is essential.

During tours, the Rep has performed everywhere from an old 1,000-seat opera house in Galveston, Texas, to a gymnasium floor in small-town Plains, Montana.

“That’s a real amazing spectrum,” Johnson says.

While on the two-week tour in Beijing, the group performed five times: twice at a high school, once at a university and two more times in the smaller inland town of Chongqing.

Although most of the audience understood English, display panels on the side of the stage explained the basics for each scene in Chinese. The play is featured in some curriculums, but Johnson says it had never been performed in China before.

Johnson says the audiences received the shows well, especially with the addition of Chinese students into the play in Beijing. Students at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing particularly enjoyed one of the play’s keynote scenes.

“Atticus Finch’s address to the jury outlining the importance of the justice system was met with massive applause at every performance,” Johnson says.

Starring in the role of Atticus Finch is Jeff Medley, a Missoula actor recruited by Johnson for the tour of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Although Medley always had the desire to act, severe stage fright and a Shakespeare phobia prevented him from performing until 2008, when he landed a role in Missoula Community Theatre’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

“I’m 43. And I’m a late comer … a late bloomer,” he says.

He met Johnson a year later, and when Johnson asked him to play in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Medley says he was honored. He says playing the briefcase-carrying attorney Finch is challenging because most of the acting is word-based, rather than full of gestures.

Although he never went to school for theater, Medley says he has learned constantly while working with the students and recent theater grads in Montana Rep. And he was eager to bring a play about a small town in Alabama to the Chinese people.

“What a crazy thing to be a part of,” Medley says.

During the first stumble-through, the crew finally put together all the scenes from “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the Schreiber Gymnasium at UM.

Instead of stage lights, fluorescent bulbs beamed down from the gray, high-ceilinged room. Simple wood chairs, stools and a ladder in the center served as the only props.

Johnson cued the humming, and the strains of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” echoed throughout the space. Everyone scrambled through their scenes, with Medley’s occasional, “I’m sorry, line?”

Two weeks later, and after about a month total of practice, everyone departed for Beijing, piling into rental SUVs at 3 a.m. and driving from UM to Seattle.

The Rep was on the road again, this time to China. •

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Audience members in China prepare to watch a performance of Montana Rep’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (Photo by James Drysdale)