Neil Simon

Q & A Series : Equity Actor, Bret Tuomi

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There have been nearly a thousand actors, designers, directors, and staff employed by the Rep over our 50 years. We can’t think of a better way to help celebrate the 50th Anniversary of MRT than to hear from those who’ve made it all possible. This Q & A series helps illuminate the vast range of experiences the Rep offers. We get to hear from Bret Tuomi – Broadway veteran, Chicago actor, and Rep Alum.

Before Bret became the successful actor he is now, he was an Acting student at the University of Montana. He went on to tour nationally once as a student, three times as a non-equity professional, and three more times as an Equity Actor.

Bret has done over 100 performances on Broadway of the musical Rock of Ages. His Chicago credits include: The Iceman Cometh with Nathan Lane at the Goodman Theatre, Julius Caesar at Chicago Shakespeare, and ENRON at TimeLine Theatre Company. Film and television credits include a featured role in Keep the Change with Jack Palance (a TBS television movie) and commentary as Dr. Trent Troutly on ESPN2’s Fly Fishing Challenge.


Q: What was special about the Montana Repertory Theatre experience you had?
Getting to see the country while getting to know some of the closest friends I’ll ever have.

Q: Where did your work with Montana Rep come in your career? Student? Equity? What effect did it have on your career?
I did seven tours between 1992 and 2010. Once as a student, three times as non-equity, and three times as Equity. I got my equity card in 2002 doing Death of a Salesman. I am enormously grateful for the opportunities I have had with this company – and I seriously hope that my work with the company is not done.

Q: The Rep has long since had a tradition of producing American Canonical texts. What is your favorite classic the Rep has toured? And why?
Death of a Salesman. It tells a story of characters we all know very well.

Q: If you could tell a student actor hoping to work for The Rep one thing – what would it be?
Pack light.

Q: Looking back on your work with Montana Repertory Theatre, which singular memory stands out the most?
I’m sure I’m not the only person when faced with this question to think of half a dozen instances which would fall into the category of “what happens on tour stays on tour”. The problem is that so many of these memories would incriminate me or someone else. Anyone who has gone out on the road knows there are varying levels of debauchery on every tour. The thing is, it’s this kind of life that really lends itself to the best kind of bonding a human can have. And when a person can experience that, while bringing America’s greatest stories to America, that’s about as good as it gets.

(Bret seen right in Montana Rep’s production of Leading Ladies)

Q & A Series : Equity Actor, Suzy Hunt

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We are so lucky to have had so many fantastic equity actors work for us over the years. These professionals steeped in the trade work alongside the students. They must be exemplary in their hard work, success, and dedication to their craft. It just so happens that Suzy Hunt has these characteristics in spades.

You may recognize her from roles in The Trip to Bountiful, Doubt, and Lost in Yonkers.

There have been nearly a thousand actors, designers, directors, and staff employed by the Rep over our 50 years. We can’t think of a better way to help celebrate the 50th Anniversary of MRT than to hear from those who’ve made it all possible.

1.  What was special about the MRT experience you had?

 

Working with students rather than a slate of professional actors.  The students were always eager to learn and to work hard.  And to play hard too.  The work is arduous and repetitive and far from home so challenges are never ending.  I found myself learning from them the nuts and bolts of creative improvisation for we would perform on many kinds and qualities of stages.  Often we would reblock a scene given the dimensions of the playing space.  Their eagerness to solve problems and delight when theatrical variances worked was heartening.  Many of the students I worked with have gone on to professional work in the theatre.  A good dose of tour will never discourage an impassioned theatre worker.

2.  Where did your work with the MRT come in your career? What effect did it have on your career?

Mid late to late…though as the Pythons say, “I’m not dead yet.”  I played middle aged and older character roles for the Rep.  And some juicy ones for the which I am grateful to Greg Johnson.  Although touring for some time away from your home base excludes you from roles, you nevertheless have the singular pleasure of working on a part in many venues for many audiences in a MRT tour.  I never regretted taking the time away from other opportunities because the work although difficult was rewarding on many levels.  I adored the students, the people along the way whose lives we enriched (and that ain’t hay), the extraordinary kindnesses from our hosts, and the opportunity to travel the length and breadth of our wonderful country. Having the chance to play these roles galvanized my career. I brought the experience of playing them to many other subsequent roles. I continue to work into my 70’s with gratitude that I am able to do so.  I am a walking illustration that a career in the theatre is a lifelong commitment and joy.

3.  What is your favorite classic the Rep has toured? Why?

That’s easy…The Trip to Bountiful.  This great play about going home resonated with our audiences more than any play I was ever a part of at the Rep.  We tour in many states that are mostly rural.  We play in small to medium sized towns where the populace is closer to the land than in our major cities.  These are people who have lost their land, seen it blown away in hurricanes, bought out by corporate farms, or lost because their children went to the cities.  Their tears and stories about the loss of home brought me to tears as well.  The world of family farms is mostly gone and the yearning to return to a place that gave solace is palpable to these people and I was moved by their emotion. And of course we met Mr. Horton Foote on our tour and listened to his beautiful words during a question and answer period.  His hug and praise at the end of our show is something I will take with me always.

4.  If you could tell a student actor hoping to work for the Rep one thing what would it be?

Embrace all challenges.

5.  What singular memory stands out? 

I could say the day our Ryder truck loaded with all our sets was confiscated by the authorities in Billings, Montana after the bombing in Oklahoma, or the time we arrived at the theatre and there were long tables of moonshine in Mason jars for every member of the company, or the fantastic hikes I took with Jimmy Robinson including the day of the tornado in Oxford Mississippi when we happened upon the home of William Faulkner, or the wonderful hospitality we received every time we played Plains, Montana. Especially the night we held our show for the folks coming from Thompson Falls in a snow storm.  We took our curtain call around midnight to a standing ovation of very grateful people. It was thrilling.  But I guess I have to say that playing all the gorgeous theatres that had once been vaudeville houses from Uniontown, PA with it’s ghost to the elegant Galveston Theatre to the glorious theatre in my birthplace of Butte, Montana (please fill in the name of this theatre cause I have forgotten it) is finally my greatest memory.  I would stand on the floor backstage and look up into the loft and imagine all who had come before.  I made a silent prayer to St. Genesius who is the patron saint of actors.  All of the greats and near greats played in these houses.  The communities that had the wit to save them added immeasurably to the cultural life of their towns.  We played in houses that held the comedy of the Marx Brothers, the easy wit of Will Rogers, and the glorious sounds of Rubinstein.  It was before TV and Blockbuster movies, and all the rest and to these old eyes it was a halcyon time.

(Hunt, left as Sister Aloysius in Doubt)

Q & A Series: Hugh Bickley

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1. What was special about the Montana Repertory Theatre experience you had?
I was lucky enough to double as a proud Montana Repertory Theatre Actor and Projection Designer for both the 2014 National Tour of the Miracle Worker and 2015 National Tour of the Great Gatsby. Thus, I had the rare advantage of working both on and behind the scenes. This perspective afforded me a breathtaking glimpse into the staggering attention to detail that is poured into every facet of an MRT production: The thread count of the sheets on a bed onstage that is never even unmade; the fitting and heartbreaking origin story of a piece of music tucked away into a transition; the authenticity of a period-specific pocket watch. The Montana Repertory Theatre is a well-oiled machine; a group of passionate professionals that thrive on substance, not illusion.

2. Where did your work with Montana Rep come in your career? Student? Equity? What effect did it have on your trajectory?
Since I was lucky enough to embark on three national tours with the Montana Repertory Theatre, I had amassed forty-seven equity points by the time I moved to the big city––thirty of them before I even graduated. This positioned me to be able to network freely and volunteer my time, while having the option of joining the Union when I see fit.
MRT is to the University experience what AP or IB classes are to high schools. The latter provide young students with college-level experience and actual credit. MRT provides college students with real-world experience and actual Equity points. I hear a lot of alumni from other schools lament that their education failed to ready them for the harsh reality of the real world. Thanks to the Montana Repertory Theatre, I got real-world experience before I even graduated.

3. The Rep has long since had a tradition of producing American Canonical texts. What is your favorite classic? And why?
The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s requiem for the American Dream is proving more and more prophetic by the year. With its rich tapestry of characters and timeless metaphors, bringing Gatsby to the stage seemed like pinning wings on the Titanic. But under Greg Johnson’s adept direction and knack for theatrical momentum, this classic stormed across the country like a portent of coming strife amidst our nation’s escalating financial tensions and class stratification. The Rep never fails to commemorate the legacy of classic storytellers like Fitzgerald. Now, more than ever, we need the voices of our literary giants. Now, more than ever, we need artists like the Rep to champion them.

4. If you could tell a student actor hoping to work for The Rep one thing – what would it be?
Pay attention. Don’t think of this as a chance to use your voice. Think of it as a chance to listen. The country is now your classroom. Study it, soak it up, revel in its awe––and listen as intently as you expect them to hear you.

5. Looking back on your work with Montana Repertory Theatre, which singular memory stands out the most?
Toward the end of our tour with the Miracle Worker, we had the privilege of playing for the Helen Keller School for the Deaf & Blind in Talladega, Alabama. The deaf students in particular were a uniquely terrific audience because they showed little vocal restraint when the play resonated with them emotionally. Their laughter was uninhibited, their gasps were audible, their etiquette was of another paradigm.
For those unfamiliar, the Miracle Worker tells the story of Anne Sullivan teaching a young Helen Keller about language itself––that things have words, that words have meaning. The moment that Helen understands her first word is the ‘miracle’ that the title refers to. It happens toward the end of the play, and every night we could measure our audience’s adulation in sniffles, gasps, and finally unbridled applause come time for the curtain call.
The students at the Helen Keller school showed no such restraint. The miracle happened and there was an uproar. Wailing and declarations of love (“Thank you!” and “I love you, Helen!”), clapping, cheering, howling and astonishment––a clamor that hit those of us on and backstage like an avalanche.
I’m not sure that I’ll ever again witness the power of live theatre to such a raw, tangible and measurable degree. That audience understood the story we were telling on a level that we could never claim to. But somehow, we validated their story. And in turn, they validated mine.

(Bickley in Biloxi Blues – seen being restrained left)

Q & A Series : Elizabeth Bennett

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Over the next several weeks we will be releasing a fantastic series of Q & A’s with both students and professionals who have worked with Montana Repertory Theatre. We can’t think of a better way to help celebrate the 50th Anniversary of MRT than to hear from those who’ve made it all possible. There have been nearly a thousand actors, designers, directors, and staff employed by the Rep over our 50 years. Here are a few of them.

We asked the same questions to a handful of Rep family members. The responses are obviously unique to each person – but they help to highlight the range of experiences offered by Montana Rep. You’ll read hilarious anecdotes, success stories, and a pervasive gratitude. We are proud to have worked with each and every one of these folks.

Beginning our Q & A series is Elizabeth Bennett! Having begun her work with the Rep during her Junior Year at the University of Montana, she is now transitioning into the professional realm. Most recently, you may have seen her in Bronté to the Future, this fall’s Educational Outreach Tour. Enjoy!

  1. What was special about the Montana Repertory Theatre experience you had?

To me, what was special about my time with the Rep is that it resembled ascending a staircase of experience; I started with volunteering for the Biloxi Blues gala. I worked in the office as a student, where I got to know Greg and Salina and Teresa, all wonderful people. That led to me being cast in the Rep’s first Visions and Voices project, Circle Mirror Transformation. Then I got cast in Gatsby one year and in All My Sons the next; I just finished my first Educational Outreach tour, the last of which many can attest is one of the most challenging and enriching Rep tours. I couldn’t have done any of these adventures without the experience of the one before. It all fell exactly into place.

  1. Where did your work with Montana Rep come in your career? Student? Equity? What effect did it have on your trajectory?

The Rep came into my career exactly when it needed to; as a junior. It jump started my attitude as an adult working actor earlier than it might for most college students, for which I consider myself extremely lucky.

  1. The Rep has long since had a tradition of producing American Canonical texts. What is your favorite classic? And why?

I’ve only seen a handful of the Rep’s canonical pieces, but my favorite of the ones I’ve seen has got to be Biloxi Blues. I remember being blown away by the comedy of Neil Simon and the ensemble of my peers.

  1. If you could tell a student actor hoping to work for The Rep one thing – what would it be?

Get involved and be thankful for every opportunity. I remember helping at the Biloxi gala and thinking, “Someday it’s gonna be me going on tour.” Interest in working for the Rep goes far beyond expression at auditions; being interested means helping behind the scenes, volunteering, helping with Colony; be a hard worker and show passion for every facet of the theatre, not just the spotlight. I would also encourage any student actor to give the Educational Outreach tour special attention; it is an extremely rewarding experience teaching kids theatre.

  1. Looking back on your work with Montana Repertory Theatre, which singular memory stands out the most?

The most recent memory (they are too numerous for me to narrow down to one!) that stands out is performing Bronte to the Future! for a school in Rosebud, Montana; their whole school was there, only a hundred or so kids K-12, and they were enamored with the show and laughed like it was their job. It was one of the best moments of my performing life. 

(Lizzy, right, with Hannah Appell as the Bronté sisters)

A Conversation with Designer Joey Sarno

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Neil Simon ingeniously wrote an additional character into his breakthrough classic, Barefoot in the Park: the set. The apartment is the top floor of a brownstone building on East 48th in New York City. This five-story walk-up (if you don’t count the stoop), is the arena in which newlyweds Paul and Corie Bratter collide. And often, their conflict is in direct result over the status of this apartment; there’s a crack in the skylight, no bath, a broken heater, an emphatically exotic downstairs neighbor, and (oh yeah, did I mention?) it’s a five-story walk-up. That being said, it’s obvious how important a bold, flawless design for this production is.

Luckily, we have scenic designer Joey Sarno on the job for the 50th Anniversary of The Rep. His box-set design for the iconic Barefoot in the Park culminates all the hard work he has been doing lately. Joey recently received his MFA in Scenic Design from the prestigious program at Carnegie Mellon University, and before that completed an MFA in Lighting from the University of Montana. He is extremely talented and devoted, having worked extensively in both theatre and television. But the single thing absent from Joey’s impressive resumé – and one of his countless strengths – is his ebullient personality. It has been such a joy working with him on this project.

Here’s the conversation between Joey and Artistic Director Greg Johnson, director of Barefoot in the Park. They talk concept, challenges, period, touring, and the details. How can the set represent both the magic of Corie, as well as the staunch pragmatism of Paul? How did Joey get into Corie’s mind to aid in his design? When does design call for subtlety, and when does it require boldness? Listen in for the answers. Tickets for the Opening Night Gala, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Montana Repertory Theatre are available from the UMArts Box Office in the PARTV building. Call (406) 243-4581 to make a reservation. And be sure to like our Facebook page.

Our Town Indeed

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As I was taking “Scout” my Border-Collie, Australian-Shepard- cross down to Greenough Park this morning for our daily saunter, I passed Eric Palmer putting some electrical supplies into his truck, I passed Amanda Pollard with her retriever coming out of the park, and I saw a young boy kneeling on the corner sidewalk tying his shoes next to a stack of books. I thought of OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder, and how we all go about our daily lives regardless on national and international news, good or bad. I felt the profound sense of what it means to be an American at this time and place. I thought of this as Scout and I walked over bridges and across frost covered meadows watching the fog lift off Rattlesnake Creek. Upon leaving the park, ascending the hill towards home, I thought of another Thornton Wilder play: THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, a haunting parable on the human condition. In it, the Antribus family progresses through history, apparently repeating the follies that human nature is prone to. At this particular time in our history we are reminded of human frailty, folly and the repetition of patterns in our own culture. We ask “are we progressing or not? Is the bright promise of America being fulfilled?” As we struggle to answer these questions we are reminded of the great playwrights like Wilder who seek to light our way.

It is in this spirit we look to The Montana Repertory Theatre’s 50th anniversary season and our GALA party coming up January 20th. We will be celebrating five decades of bringing quality theatre to our audiences, and for the past twenty-five years, nationally. Significant to this discussion is the nature of the plays. The Montana Rep produces plays from the great American tradition. These plays, by the very best American writers, from Thornton Wilder to Arthur Miller, to Tennessee Williams, to Neil Simon and William Inge and Harper Lee, are the very bread and butter of the company.

We have been telling America’s story: examining, studying, exposing and celebrating the American character in all its multi-faceted aspirations and imperfections. For as Wilder teaches us, we are a marvelous brood of very different types, characters, dreams and flaws, who keep going on, in the belief that we are a good, imperfect, mistake prone, often selfish and unseeing tribe, but in the end, bending to the best in us. This optimism is very important for us to be reminded of these days and why we are so delighted to be offering Neil Simon’s heartfelt paean to young love with our national touring production of BAREFOOT IN THE PARK.

The GALA opening to which you all invited is on January 20th , the very day the 45th president of The United States will be inaugurated. It is fitting therefor that we end that day with a celebration of all that brings us together as Americans, the common causes we all strive for as we move forward, however imperfectly, towards an America that celebrates life, love and each other.

Hope to see you all January 20th for BAREFOOT IN THE PARK and our big party.

Thank you
Greg Johnson
Artistic Director
The Montana Repertory Theatre