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The Last Five Years brought nearly 750 people to the small-town theatre, and was one of WMPAC’s biggest successes in the 2019 season. PHOTO COURTESY OF WARREN MILLER PERFORMING ARTS CENTER

Celebrate four season programming with the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center

By Timothy Behuniak EBS ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR

Warren Miller once said, “Every person’s intuition is their constant search for freedom.” For Warren Miller Performing Arts Center’s Executive and Creative Director John Zirkle, this quotation could not be more relevant, especially for an arts theatre in a small ski town.

“I feel emboldened [by this phrase],” Zirkle said. “What does it mean to feel free as an arts programmer and potential audience member? I want to be unrestricted in what I can explore—I want to go off in that unknown area despite dangers that lie ahead.”

Since March 12, 2013, when the theatre first opened its doors, the WMPAC has been doing exactly this—foraging ahead into the unknown, despite the risks. “There’s risky programming and safe programming … I know what will sell well,” Zirkle said. “But we would be doing Warren Miller a disservice if we just gave people what they wanted all the time. We want to present things that are new experiences for audience members, even if some think they’re horrible.”

Although this winter season’s schedule had a national personality and “safe programming,” such as NPR’s Ira Glass, WMPAC also hosted shows like The Last Five Years, an off-Broadway musical. “I’d say that most people have probably never heard of the show before,” Zirkle said. “But it brought the most people to the theatre in our history. We brought nearly 750 people [over three nights] to our little theatre of 280, in a town of 2,800 residents. That to me is a huge success.”

For Zirkle, no matter how safe or risky a scheduled show is, every WMPAC stage performance is a testament to the theatre’s mission: To grow a community of confident performers and inspired audiences. No matter the season, WMPAC aims to produce quality over quantity. Although there may be just a handful of shows in one winter, every performance is of the highest possible quality, all vetted by Zirkle, the WMPAC team and other professionals in the industry.

“What I hope to achieve is that we create a diverse, theatre-going community,” Zirkle said. “I want to help facilitate, amplify and foster an environment where people like to ski and do fun things with the community every week.”

And although WMPAC’s main focus is the winter season, it also provides year-round opportunities to participate in and view performances. December through March marks the theatre’s winter season, while the summer conservatory is from July to August. During shoulder seasons, there is a focus on local and regional artists.

In May there is a community theatre production, while in June there is an annual Big Sky Broadway with local kids, usually ranging from fifth to ninth grade. This year the students will present Matilda, a musical.

“We’re showing this route which is anchored in pro artists in the summer making and refining work, then coming back in the winter season to present in the fullest form,” Zirkle said. “During that process, we’re working alongside the local community, too.”

Zirkle tries to keep a few things in mind when scheduling future performances, such as the diversity in media and style. “We want shows to feel different and rich each time, not just present theatre and dance,” Zirkle said. “We have people that come to every show, and others that come to just a few. So, we want to aim for the diversity of a ski day: a couple of groomers, something intense, going up the tram and a nice hot chocolate at the end of the day.”

Another important aspect when thinking of scheduling is to maintain the spirit of Warren Miller because, after all, he is whom the theatre is named after. While the creative director refrains from the direct approach of presenting Warren Miller films, he keeps Miller’s adventurous legacy in mind.

“That typically takes place in the form of a new music piece,” Zirkle said. “I want people to walk in and have no idea of what to expect.”

While WMPAC has operated for seven successful seasons, each year brings its own set of challenges, ticket sales being the most obvious. Because there is programming that people may not be familiar with, such as The Last Five Years or The Wonderheads, potential audience members may shy away from shows at the theatre.

But, art is a terrible and abstract word, according to Zirkle. “I’m both a ski bum and an arts person. When I don’t have to teach, I go to the tram as often as possible,” Zirkle said. “I would love for it to feel less abstract and only reserved for people who have a lot of experiences [in the art world].”

To help combat the fear of the unknown, Zirkle and the WMPAC team do their best to focus on the words “diversity” and “inclusion.” Although it takes two to three years to program each season, the WMPAC staff is constantly thinking of ways to make sure there is a show for everyone at the theatre.

“We’re working to bridge the urban and rural divide by bringing big-city artists to small-town Montana, and ask them to work with our audiences as well as the local and regional community,” Zirkle said. “We want to make sure that people come to WMPAC, and want to come back.” 

Visit warrenmillerpac.org for more information about the theatre and to purchase tickets for upcoming shows, such as the Big Sky Community show, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” on May 16.

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