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Theater company marks 50 years of Shakespeare in Montana

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Montana Shakespeare in the Parks performers rehearse at Montana State University in 2018. PHOTO BY GRACE DUVAL

By Melissa Loveridge BOZEMAN DAILY CHRONICLE

BOZEMAN – For half a century, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks has been connecting people across the state and beyond to the fabled playwright—and to each other.

“Shakespeare is the vehicle that brings all generations together,” said Kevin Asselin, the artistic executive director of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks. “What we find is that regardless of political affiliation or socioeconomic status, the unifying component is the desire for all our communities to want to come together and share a moment of reprieve.”

The organization, part of Montana State University’s College of Arts and Architecture, is celebrating a big anniversary this year. Since its founding in 1973, fifty years ago, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks has been bringing classical works to Montanans through its variety of performances and school education programs.

Shakespeare in the Parks has been able to stick around for so long thanks to MSU, the many actors and artists that have gotten involved, the many donors from all over the country, but especially the audiences, Asselin told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

“The organization truly belongs to them,” Asselin said of the audiences and communities that invite the organization to perform. “It purely belongs to our communities. Therefore it’s an honor to be able to serve them and I have had the honor for 20 years now.”

Shakespeare in the Parks is arguably best known for its summer tour program—a small band of actors spends months on the road, visiting and putting on Shakespeare plays in rural communities in Montana and its neighboring states. The actors are also their own crew; they’re responsible for building and tearing down the stage at each venue for every free-to-watch play.

Audiences from these rural communities come out in droves to watch the performances, always outside and often in public parks, hence the organization’s name.

“Shakespeare may be the vehicle, but it’s a much bigger thing. It’s a community experience, that the cultural arts are able to bring everybody together, to unify for that moment in time,” Asselin said. “My hope is that we can provide them with an opportunity or inspiration that will let that energy resonate when they get back in their trucks and drive home hopefully that energy can continue on beyond the performance.”

This year’s summer tour will feature two plays: “King Lear,” Shakespeare’s famous pandemic project, and “Twelfth Night,” a holiday-themed play.

As is often the case with Shakespeare in the Parks, there’s a twist.

“We’re conceptualizing [“King Lear”] to be in the period of 1870 Montana, so the Montana Territory,” Asselin said. “The hope is that we can shift the focus of the play to be more lined up with the idea of being a family drama rather than a play about a king who goes into a state of madness.”

“Twelfth Night,” on the other hand, will be set in the bayou in a more modern, Cajun remix of the classic Christmas tale, Asselin said.

In addition to its summer tour, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks puts on a number of interactive and educational programs in Montana schools throughout the year.

Montana Shakes!, the organization’s interactive spring performances, has already started its 2022 tour, bringing a Shakespeare-inspired play called “Bottom’s Dream” to 60 Montana elementary schools. The Montana Shakes! play is based on and includes characters and scenes from Shakespeare plays, and it’s accompanied by interactive workshops and crafts to get kids interested in Shakespeare.

“They’ve been out now for a couple of weeks,” Asselin said. “I think what I really appreciate about [Montana Shakes!] is that not only are we really getting kids excited and engaged in Shakespeare, but this particular adaptation is also designed to bring teachers and parents into it in a very fun, interactive way.”

The organization’s other school program Shakespeare in the Schools will hit the road this fall, bringing a production of “MacBeth” to students and communities across the state.

Asselin first got involved with MTSIP when he was an actor based in Chicago. The draw, at least at first, was the idea of touring around the state putting on shows—but MTSIP grew to mean much more than just a job and a performance, and Asselin kept coming back, first as an actor, then a teacher, then a fight director and now as the leader of the organization, a role he’s held for almost a decade.

The thing that’s kept Asselin coming back for more isn’t just his love of Shakespeare, but the good that the organization does in rural Montana communities and beyond.

“It’s an honor. We are in service of our communities and this is not individual driven,” Asselin said. “Our programming and our methods of outreach are based upon our communities needs and with the full intention of what’s going to be helpful and inspiring them and keeping them engaged.”

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