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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.

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