Rep’s school play addresses class, gentrification with puppets, jokes | Arts & Theater

The Montana Repertory Theater’s new educational outreach play, “The Castle with a Thousand Lights,” addresses friendship, communication, gentrification and reaching adulthood.

It also has puppets, animation and jokes.

Every year, the Rep, a professional company embedded in the University of Montana School of Theater & Dance, tours an original script through schools around the state. This year, they reached out to Sam Myers, a playwright who took his first crack at writing a script for a younger audience with an educational angle.

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“I thought it would make sense to write a play that spoke to the specific community who would be seeing it,” Myers said. Having grown up in Wyoming, he was aware of the class inequality and rising housing stresses in small mountain towns and “started thinking about a way into it that would be entertaining and fun.”

The plot centers on two friends, Toby and Melissa, who’ve been hanging out since fourth grade. Now in high school, tensions have arisen — Toby’s family is better off than Melissa’s. To try to bridge thus-far unspoken fracturing, Toby decides to tell her a story using puppets, a thing they used to do when they were younger. Melissa participates, and begins bending the story to address what’s on her mind about her — the financial pressures that gentrification in their small mountain town have created for her and her family about her.

Toby’s fairytale story, meanwhile, starts out somewhat taken innocent and gets funnier — a “magical warlock” has up residence in a castle with a thousand lights that looms over a formerly idyllic mountain community and draining residents of their livelihoods and happiness, and Toby and Melissa set out to find a solution to their made-up and real problems.

The tour is designed to give schools a theatrical experience, particularly in areas where they might not often see live drama.

“We’re working under some pretty strict limitations but they force us to be creative — in ways that can be super helpful,” said Michael Legg, the Rep’s artistic director.

“It can’t have more than two actors, and it can’t have more of a set than will fit in the truck,” Legg said. It also needs to work in cafeterias, gyms, libraries, community rooms and more.

The schools confirmed so far are in Hamilton, Missoula, Plains, Philipsburg, Kalispell, Brady/Dutton, Choteau, Bainville and Wibaux, for students in fifth through 12th grade.

The sole cast members are UM students David Miller and Rikky Johnson, who tell the story with only puppets, and animations courtesy of Media Arts students David Mattson and Paige Childers. Those are played on a flat-screen TV in Toby’s “basement,” so viewers see animations of the fantasy world.

Myers, a Brooklyn-based playwright who’s from Wyoming, wrote the original script. Myers grew up in Riverton, a town of about 10,000 people east of the Wind River range. His father spent his career teaching theater at the Central Wyoming College, which was a “classic” theater, producing everything from “Oklahoma!” to “Waiting for Godot.”

Myers’ roots also mean he’s familiar with the stress that mountain towns are under. He did his own research and talked a lot with Legg about the issue.

Myers said he was told the story has to have two actors but he could use any other theatrical devices he wanted as long as they were compact. He took the example of puppets as a challenge and they stayed in the story. They provide a way to tell a fantastical story that’s playful and unreal but keep it “grounded in reality,” he said.

That also gives various entry points for the story depending on the age of the audience members.

There’s the “hopefully delightful playfulness and the puppets and all the magic elements of it that you can experience at face value and just take as a very exciting adventure story, and then of course there’s the more realistic human relationship part,” Myers said.

As the story progresses, Miller and Johnson get endless sight gags out of the puppets — which are backpacks with puppet arms and legs that they can don backwards. Each puppet has a different costume that matches their character.

Lara Berich, a UM assistant professor of theater costume design and technology, said the unusual design was born out of conversations about what kind of puppets would work and would require the audience to watch “a non-human face interact for a long time.”

Miller, a freshman pre-BFA theater major, is from a military family and moved here from Great Falls.

Johnson, a sophomore pursuing a BFA in acting, grew up in Florida and her family moved to Bozeman when she was 10. The production checked off three boxes — traveling, acting and teaching — and the material brought up an issue that’s pressing.

The varied roles include a wealthy aunt, a class resistance villager, and more that suit a former speech-and-debate amateur.

“I really like playing lots of big characters and stuff, so I like that about it,” Johnson said. “But my favorite scene in the whole thing is when she tells him she’s gonna move, I just think it’s the one time the character gets to be fully vulnerable.”

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