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Making it in Big Sky: Warren Miller Performing Arts Center

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John Zirkle giving an opening speech before the premiere of the original play Levity. PHOTO BY TORI PINTAR


BIG SKY—Since 2013, families across Big Sky, as well as area visitors, have benefited from the presence of the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center and the culture it brings to the community. It was founded not only to provide entertainment and supplement the Big Sky School District’s services, but also to fulfill one of the dreams of its namesake: Warren Miller himself believed that just because you live in a remote ski town, doesn’t mean you should be deprived of access to the arts.

To celebrate a decade in the community, Explore Big Sky sat down with Executive Director John Zirkle, and Director of Operations and Marketing Cara Wilder, for this issue’s Making it in Big Sky.

This series is part of a paid partnership with the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. The following answers have been edited for brevity.

Explore Big Sky: What brought you to Big Sky?

John Zirkle: I came with friends to ski for a season while we were in the great “in between” during the Great Recession.

Cara Wilder: Growing up in Bozeman, I would come to Big Sky occasionally to ski. Big Sky has grown and changed dramatically since the 80s, and I’m finding there’s a real vitality and sense of community engagement, and a true appreciation for the arts, which is certainly gratifying for us at WMPAC! I’m grateful to John and the WMPAC board for the opportunity to get to know what Big Sky has become.

EBS: How did the Warren Miller Performing Art Center come to be? 

JZ: The Warren Miller Performing Arts Center was dreamed up by Friends of Big Sky Education and the community when the idea for a new high school in Big Sky came up in 2004. After two legislative sessions and a recession, we opened our doors in March of 2013 after retrofitting the old middle school gymnasium at the school. The vision for WMPAC was always to be a dual-use facility; for the school during the daytime and for the community at night.

CW: WMPAC opened its doors on March 12, 2013, which means we’re celebrating a decade this spring! And, it fulfilled a dream of our namesake, Warren Miller, to have a world-class entertainment venue a stone’s throw from a world-class ski resort. He believed living in a ski town shouldn’t mean you have to sacrifice access to the arts, that the two needn’t be mutually exclusive.

EBS: Warren Miller was known for a lot of things, but one that comes to mind is making skiing accessible to everyone, right from their living room, or theater chair. He turned it into a form of entertainment by celebrating his love for the sport in film. How does his impact carry onto the performing arts center that is his namesake?
JZ: A lot of our 2013 debut season was about trying out new things, asking what a performing arts center should be in a mountain town, and honoring Warren Miller’s legacy. We still ask that question, especially after the ongoing challenges of the last couple years with COVID, but we have a much better sense of what types of shows work well in the community, which types of shows press buttons (for better or worse) and who is most likely to come to a show.

If anything though, I would say the humbling experience of these last couple years has made us hungrier than ever for adventurous thinkers and an authentic commitment to creative presentation. Big Sky is bigger than it was when we opened our doors, and so we have been creating more opportunities for students and adults to access the theater, while we also bend and fit to the growth of more cultural opportunities being available throughout the greater Big Sky community.

EBS: How has WMPAC’s season been so far? 

CW: I think one reason audiences gravitate to WMPAC is that they know they’re going to be a part of an adventurous, singular performance; something they won’t see anywhere else. For our 10th anniversary so far we’ve welcomed bluegrass fans for a wonderfully intimate season opener with Sierra Hull, then pivoted to a raucous evening of comedy with Chad Daniels. We followed that up with a multicultural evening featuring genre-bending string quartet Brooklyn Rider along with Mexican singing sensation Magos Herrera, and just last weekend we hosted the world premiere of NPR’s Planet Money Live! created right here on our stage. It’s been a wild ride so far, and we’re only halfway through the season! 

EBS: Do you have any exciting performances coming up that are worth sharing?
On Saturday, Feb. 25, we’re looking forward to an exuberant, exhilarating street dance troupe called Memphis Jookin, featuring Lil Buck, the creator and choreographer. And as an actor myself, I’m excited for The Acting Company, a professional touring company out of New York, bringing their version of the classic, The Three Musketeers, on Sunday, March 5.
JZ: I’m personally thrilled to be welcoming back the James Sewell Ballet, who performed in our inaugural season 10 years ago. They’ll be performing a gorgeous music and movement collaboration developed last summer with The Ahn Trio, on Saturday, March 11. It will be wonderful to come full circle with the JSB to celebrate our first decade.

EBS: Why are the performing arts an important part of a community? What does it provide?
Ultimately, our mission is tied to cultural infrastructure, so what we’ve really focused on is creating and establishing clear and stable pathways for the community to have consistent access to creativity throughout the year. Those paths are more worn than they once were, and we are shifting to our first glimpses of having institutional knowledge within the community, as opposed to being the shiny new thing that we were in our first season. This is evidenced by a more robust performing arts program embedded into the school curriculum here in Big Sky, increased participation in local community productions, and the concept of “regulars” at the shows. Also, people lovingly refer to us by our acronym “WOM-pack,” which I view as a big win for us.

We know our audiences have come to expect and love innovative thinking and creativity at WMPAC, and our primary goal is to continue to provide a space where this kind of thinking is respected, nourished and celebrated. Ultimately, I think the little decisions and commitment to innovative, divergent thinking are what bring an artist and audience into a sacred communion of winks, smirks, sighs and giggles. I often watch our audiences as much as our stage, looking for the moment when the artist does something that makes the audience feel present in the space and think, “Oh, that’s clever.” That’s usually the moment when both the artists and the audience have a collective realization that, “Yes, I am glad I’m here tonight.”

EBS: Is there anything else you’d like the Big Sky community to know?
If our first decade has taught us anything, it’s that we will continue to grow alongside the community of Big Sky and southwest Montana. Big Sky will have grown in population again by then, so my great hope is that we have more locals on stage throughout more seasons of the year, and that we have an opportunity to build out more programming that continues to inspire and bring people together. As long as I’m here, I’m going to keep pushing to surprise. We strive to be different because we believe that is how we can best help contribute to a thriving and vibrant arts ecosystem in southwest Montana.

EBS: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

JZ: From Warren Miller: “If you don’t do it this year, you’ll only be a year older when you do.” Also, Warren gave me some really practical advice on the decision to do one or two performances for a show. He said, “If you think you can fill half the house on the second show, go for it.” That has been very useful for us as we continue to grow.

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