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John Zirkle reflects on 10 years of the WMPAC

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The Warren Miller Performing Arts Center will celebrate its 10th birthday in March of 2023, upcoming winter season to commemorate anniversary


The WMPAC was built atop the old Ophir School gymnasium in the fall of 2012. At this stage of construction, the old floors still poked through. PHOTO BY ANNA MIDDLETON

BIG SKY—It took nearly 10 years from ideation about a theater attached to Lone Peak High School to the doors of the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center opening for the first time on March 12, 2013. Now, the WMPAC is gearing up to celebrate 10 years of supplying Big Sky with a public space for arts, entertainment and culture.

John Zirkle, the WMPAC’s executive and artistic director, joined the project in 2011 and has been with the performing arts center ever since.

“This whole year I’m just doing a lot of reflecting and looking back,” Zirkle said.

The winter season, set to run from Dec. 28 through March 25, will memorialize the 10-year anniversary.

In his reflection, Zirkle recalled one of the WMPAC’s first shows that set the early tone for the auditorium: Big Sky Broadway’s production of “Peter Pan” in the summer of 2013.

“We went really big and I remember sitting at that dress rehearsal—everybody’s crying—and I remember thinking ‘Oh my god, we might not make it,’” he said. “After that crazy dress rehearsal, we put it together, the show came off beautifully, and people loved it. And that early demonstration has really helped me through all of these shows where it feels like we may never make it. We’ve never failed.”

Prior to the WMPAC, there was no space in Big Sky solely dedicated to performing arts, for students or the public. In 2004 when Friends of Big Sky Education was working to get Lone Peak High School in place, a school auditorium was in the initial plans, but the idea was tabled when the economy dipped ahead of the 2008 recession, according to Zirkle.

LPHS opened in 2009 and as the economy began to recover, conversations about a performing arts venue resurfaced.

“The whole idea for the auditorium started to shift into a dual use facility that would be for both the Big Sky School District and the community,” Zirkle said. “This was a real win-win because we could build something that would be great for the students during the day to build a performing arts program, as well as the community—we’re a small enough community where we could cohabitate successfully.”

John Zirkle shakes hands with Warren Miller, the WMPAC’s namesake, on stage at the auditorium. PHOTO BY KENE SPERRY

Rather than calling it something along the lines of the Lone Peak High School Auditorium, FOBSE and those involved with the project decided to reach out to ski film legend and part-time Big Sky local Warren Miller, asking if the theater could be named after him. Of course, Miller said yes.

“So, we started the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center and that’s really been our mission moving forward, this dual use facility,” Zirkle said. “It’s interesting as I look back these 10 years, we’ve really held true to that mission.”

Since the beginning, WMPAC has hosted a near-even split of professional shows and community performances, according to Zirkle, reflecting Big Sky’s mix of local and tourist populations. As for the community aspect, the performing arts have grown tremendously among locals participating in programs at the WMPAC, including Big Sky Broadway, the Big Sky Community Theater and the school theater program.

Not everyone will enjoy each show the WMPAC has to offer, Zirkle said, but through the diverse array of options, he believes there is at least one show for everyone. By filling in more than one niche, Zirkle hopes the variety helps people in the community have their artistic needs met.

Having a space designated to the arts can be a hard sell to someone that doesn’t go to theater themselves. On the importance of arts in a community, Zirkle looked to history.

“Tell me about a civilization in history that has thrived and did not have a thriving art scene,” Zirkle pondered. “For me, I can’t find historical examples.”

To anyone looking, it’s clear that the WMPAC has begun to build a thriving local arts scene. Each year, the WMPAC brings in an array of diverse professional performers alongside the local programming and offers affordable tickets to see world-class talent. Through this dichotomous structure, paired with the work of other local art organizations, Big Sky boasts a remarkable arts scene and community for creatives in reference to the scale of the town.

The James Sewell Ballet Company was the first show in the WMPAC’s debut season in 2013. PHOTO BY ANNA MIDDLETON

Zirkle emphasized the word “community” as a key tenet in the center’s success over the years.

“One thing that I’ve noticed—maybe in the last few years a little more so—is that the WMPAC is more and more rooted in the local community,” he said. “Community is a good thing, we want to make community. It’s always something that we are creating, it’s not something that just happens by chance.”

As the WMPAC moves out of its infancy, Zirkle expressed that the mission is not changing, although the facility’s exterior will be. He noted that the architectural symbolism that a place like the WMPAC holds for the value of arts in the community is paramount to Big Sky’s positive growth. By the official 10-year anniversary in March, the WMPAC hopes to have a new entrance canopy, a new paint job and updated signage in place to make the arrival to the auditorium “a little stronger,” Zirkle said.

Looking to the future, the WMPAC seems to have no intention of slowing down, and the 11 shows in the upcoming winter season reflect the array of performances that have characterized the last 10 years of arts in Big Sky.

“Warren [Miller] gave us the permission to do things that might not be easy,” Zirkle said.  “Warren always said ‘If you don’t do it this year, you’ll be a year older when you do’ and I take that really seriously.”

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