The Great Gatsby

Q & A Series: Hugh Bickley

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


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)

Variety, Stamina, and Listening: A Student Testimonial


Mason Wagner, headshotA two-week run of a university production is one thing. A four-month, seventy-four performance run spread out over 16,000 miles of American Landscape is, well, slightly different. As a student, I was lucky enough to have toured twice nationally with the Montana Repertory Theatre (The Great Gatsby, All My Sons). I think back on them all the time – the memories are really strong. To say these were formative experiences feels like a gross understatement. Working with The Rep was not only my introduction to professional theatre, but also, my foray into the real craft of acting. I learned stamina, integrity, and gained a new sense of how to listen.

When cast in a university production, I had the privilege of experimenting with different theories and practices. For a while, at least. You get to throw different ideas, tactics, and methods from your acting training at the wall to see what sticks. But that whole process is balanced with other scene studies, classes, and a fundamental understanding that you are playing to the audience of a very specific community. You get to know this audience very well (but, I mean, most of them are your peers). And often, you’d walk away from these two-week stands and finally feel ready to open – like previews had ended. It goes by fast.

By the end of my first two-weeks on the road, I’d already performed in ten different towns in Montana (41 venues remained). It was an exhausting muscular experience. I was learning about different energy reserves I didn’t know existed. Because every audience was different, every performance was different. I had known this in theory, but it soon became very real to me. Theaters ranged from converted chapels on college campuses to state-of-the-art performing arts centers in big cities. Often, the set had to be modified to fit a specific theatre, so that subsequently all movement on stage would be adjusted. At the company meeting before every show, we’d talk through all the alterations for the night. This was actually terrifying at first. I’d never faced such immediate problem solving on stage. But then, this variety, this problem solving kept me on my toes, alive to each moment. And what I didn’t realize until later was that it was opening the heart of the play to me a little more every performance.

There were no classes, no professors, just this life on the road. Drive, build, perform, strike, sleep, and repeat. The rhythm of it stands out in my memory as somehow incredibly important – the breathing pattern of the tour, I suppose. But here it is; here’s why touring with the Montana Rep is important. There is no better way to teach student actors how to tell the stories engrained in the American psyche, than by sending them traversing across its literal and cultural landscape.  In having to present the same show to audiences across the country, from rural Iowa to New York City – the great challenge of making it mean something to them both — I learned about our culture, the ways we need theatre and stories, and most importantly, I learned a great deal about the craft of acting. Every show is different. Fundamentally, I learned that acting requires an especially attuned listening, and like a muscle, it is this listening and reacting that touring with The Rep helped me to develop.