Montana State University

Spring 2013

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Mountains and Minds

Photo by Kelly Gorham

The play is the thing in Montana May 07, 2013 by Michele Corriel • Published 05/07/13

As long-time artistic director of MSU-based Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, Joel Jahnke has spread the words of the Bard like seeds upon the wind across the Big Sky

When Hamlet says, "The play's the thing," it could be the motto for Joel Jahnke's career as artistic director at Montana's Shakespeare in the Parks. Through the 36 years he has been at MSU, there have been dozens of actors, costume designers, set designers and technical assistants, but when it comes down to it, the play's the thing.

It's what keeps Jahnke coming back, year after year, to breathe new life into these 400-year-old pieces. It's what sets him apart from other Shakespeare in the Parks directors around the country. Jahnke has spread the words of William Shakespeare like seeds upon the wind across Montana, as well as four other states.

From behind a mountain of papers and books, Jahnke plans out next summer's productions of Shakespeare in the Park, just weeks after the end of the troupe's summer season.

"Generally, there's a play that's speaking to me," he said. "Sometimes I'm inspired by my designers. I have to have a strong visual to know in my heart why I'm doing it."

Last year, for example, for the company's 40th season, Jahnke felt it was time for Hamlet to come out and play.

"I grasped onto that line, 'something rotten in the state of Denmark,' and took it in the direction of decadence. The 1920s came to me."

An outreach program of the College of Arts and Architecture at MSU, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks was started in 1973 by the late Bruce Jacobsen. Jahnke came to MSU in 1976, when the company was only three years old, from Northern State College in South Dakota. The company was energetic, but small then, performing in only 22 communities, up from seven when it started.

"I came here as a designer--that was my training--set, costume, tech, and props. Four years later they appointed me artistic director and I've been doing it ever since," he said. Last summer, the troupe performed 75 performances in 59 communities.

Unlike other Shakespearean touring companies, Montana's company covers thousands of miles in a season--from Bozeman, where the company is headquartered on MSU's campus, to small towns like Ekalaka, Birney and Wolf Point, as well as across state lines to Salmon, Pocatello and Driggs, Idaho, to Eastern Washington, North Dakota, and parts of Wyoming.

But Jahnke's job isn't only to conceive and direct the summer touring theater plays, there is the Shakespeare in the Schools program that brings the work (and a few actors) to middle and high schools from Labor Day to mid-December as well as Montana Shakes!, the elementary school program, in the spring.

The theater group does all its own fundraising, including grant applications and outreach to donors. MSU gives Montana SIP 7 percent of its $750,000 annual budget. It's up to Jahnke to raise the rest.

"We charge a fee based on population wherever we play," Jahnke said. "But more and more our budget comes from individual donors. We'd blow away without them." Jahnke explains there is a sponsor in every community that pays a fee to bring in the troupe, which usually covers about a fifth of the charges. The rest is paid by grants, individual donors and corporate partners.

Arlynn Fishbaugh, executive director of Montana Arts Council, credits Jahnke with creating a commonality, and bringing people and towns together under the auspices of the arts.

"It's a very unique program, not only in the region but nationally, as well. The most valuable part of this program is the sense of community it provides to the many places where they perform," Fishbaugh says. "I just got a letter from Heron, Mont., where the tour coordinator said they get between 500 and 700 folks from as far as 100 miles away to enjoy the show. That triples the population of Heron for one night."

And the letter from Heron echoes the letters Fishbaugh gets from small towns across the Intermountain West.      

"Both Joel and Kathy Jahnke [Joel's wife and the director of community relations for the troupe] develop strong relationships with the local communities," Fishbaugh said. "The key game changer was the work (MSIP) did as part of the Arts Council's Building Arts Participation in 2003. They changed the way they did business. Instead of looking at how the host community could help SIP, they looked at how SIP can help the community. That is huge and major. In my mind, it's what's given SIP the strength, commitment and bonding with (its) local communities."

Fishbaugh said the National Endowment of the Arts recognition through its NEA grants to the company really puts the group up on a pedestal--in a good way.

"Certainly in terms of the way it does its work and the way it works in communities is enormously effective," she said. "While there may be other touring companies, there are none I'm aware of that has the same saturation into rural America."

The company performs in many remote locations, all outdoors and for the most part under natural light.

"I have seen farmers and ranchers travel for miles to watch Shakespeare on a butte 45 minutes from the nearest town whose population is 17," Jahnke said. "I've seen 650 people carrying blankets and picnic baskets to watch a play on a baseball diamond, increasing the population tenfold, if only for one spectacular summer evening. I met two kids sitting under a mailbox on a dusty road in anticipation of our company coming to their town. They were 'waiting for the Shakespeare,' they told me."

The success of Shakespeare in the Parks is not only the magnitude of the works, but the caliber of the actors (among the troupe's notable alumni is actor Bill Pullman), the tenacity of the program, and the magic of live theater itself.

"This company changes people's lives," he said.

It's certainly changed Janhke's.

So what about next year? Exactly what is he thinking about behind that mountain of paperwork?

"Henry the V," Jahnke said. "We could really use a hero story. Patriotism. A band of brothers. Bring it on."