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WMPAC celebrates 10-year anniversary with ‘best year ever’

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The WMPAC received an exterior birthday makeover during the winter, creating a more obvious entrance for visitors and helping to differentiate the space from the school with which it shares a building. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON

By Julia Barton DIGITAL PRODUCER

The Warren Miller Performing Arts Center held its first performance on March 12, 2013. Ten years later, the space is largely the same, but the impact has certainly increased, according to executive and artistic director John Zirkle.

The winter season, which ran from Dec. 28 through March 25 and coincided with the anniversary date, featured 10 professional productions at the WMPAC. Each show brought a unique type of performance to the stage, including a bluegrass mandolin artist, a Memphis dance troupe, a live show by NPR podcast hosts and a Czech girls choir, to name a few.

Zirkle, who has been a part of WMPAC since 2011, strategically builds the programming to cover a wide swath of performances. The diversity that this approach fosters has since become a key aspect of the theater’s identity.

“We came out of the game identifying primarily as an arts center as opposed to a symphony or a ballet company or a theater company that only does one thing,” Zirkle said. “In order to serve everybody, there cannot be a single show that’s for everybody.”

In bringing such a variety of shows to Big Sky, the WMPAC is able to expose the community to new types of art right in their backyard. Zirkle admitted that not everyone will enjoy every show, however, by bringing in specialized acts, he believes that anyone could find at least one WMPAC performance that speaks to them.

Audience members smile during a performance inside the WMPAC. PHOTO BY TORI PINTAR

“The night of a show, you feel the vibe of the audience, and people don’t necessarily know what to expect, or they aren’t expecting anything,” said Cara Wilder, WMPAC’s director of operations and marketing. “Then, at the end of the night, [the audience is] transformed into this very positive group of people that are really happy that they showed up. And that’s really gratifying to me.”

As the community has grown, WMPAC has put focus toward calibrating its offerings to the changing town. Big Sky looked different 10 years ago, but the WMPAC’s structure has remained largely the same. The small theater was packed for every performance this winter, according to Zirkle.

“It was the best year ever,” Zirkle said. “There’s gravity toward, well, if we’re getting older, we should be getting bigger. For us, it’s about getting better, and then making sure that we were programming the right amount of acts, the right variety and making sure that there’s access to the entire community.”

Although a dynamic display of professional talent was presented across the 10 winter shows, community theater and youth productions bookended the programming in what Zirkle and Wilder agreed was a natural extension of the anniversary season.

TAIKOPROJECT, a unique Japanese-inspired drumming group, was one of the performances that made up the WMPAC’s winter season. PHOTO BY TORI PINTAR

A performing arts center was always part of the plan when Friends of Big Sky Education began work toward building a high school in Big Sky, Zirkle told EBS in a 2022 interview looking back on the WMPAC’s history. The theater was initially slated to be a school theater, however, when the 2008 recession hit, FOBSE tabled the theater project before deciding that a dual-purpose facility would be a more sustainable route. Thus, WMPAC was born as a venue for professional, community and school productions alike.

Participation in theater programs through Lone Peak High School, Big Sky Broadway and the Big Sky Community Theater have been on the rise over the past few years. LPHS has historically put on a single musical during the school year, but added a second to the playbill for 2022/23. Students presented an “Elf” Christmas special in December and “Cinderella” in early April at the WMPAC. The high school plays have so much interest, they are almost entirely double cast.

The community theater—which Zirkle said is in the early stages of preparing a 2023 production—involved dozens of locals for a fall rendition of the 1980s cult classic film “Clue.” Youth plays with Big Sky Broadway bring casts with upward of 30 kids to the WMPAC stage for multiple shows each summer.

Despite a growing interest in the performing arts in Big Sky, WMPAC has faced its fair share of challenges since 2013.

“Within just 10 years, there was a world-changing event that we actually survived that a lot of theaters across the country did not survive,” Wilder explained. “The live performing arts were probably one of the biggest industries hit hard by the pandemic.”

While WMPAC was successful in filling seats in its 10th year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Zirkle to get creative with finding ways to bring art to Big Sky without inviting anyone into the actual facility. Between performances hosted over Zoom and outdoor concerts, the theater adapted to an unstable and ever-changing landscape successfully. With things largely back to normal, Zirkle said that the 2022/23 season topped the books for WMPAC’s most successful season, outdoing the previous year’s record-breaking numbers.

As the theater moves out of its infancy, Zirkle emphasized the importance of bringing art to where people already are, a skill he honed during the pandemic. The next few months of programming include collaborative efforts to bring mini plays at Big Sky’s weekly farmers markets, and a comedy workshop and performance series.

Black exterior and signage complete additions to the WMPAC’s updated exterior. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON

WMPAC has also partnered with Missoula’s Montana Repertory Theatre to commission an indigenous playwright to write a play about focusing on missing and endangered indigenous women in the region. Zirkle said the project has been in the works for years, but an early version of the play will be workshopped at the WMPAC during the summer before it eventually tours across the state with MRT.

The WMPAC’s exterior facade received a birthday makeover this winter to help solidify its visual identity. Black paint now coats the theater’s exterior walls, there’s now a small entrance canopy and lighting was installed to frame the building during evening shows.

Visitors might also notice minor interior alterations to the WMPAC’s reception space in upcoming months. It doubles as the school cafeteria, and increased enrollment in the school district necessitates a bigger lunchroom.

As the WMPAC moves beyond the 10-year milestone, Zirkle said the theater will continue bringing diverse acts to Big Sky during the winter while experimenting with new ways to engage with locals during the spring and fall shoulder seasons.

“We’re 10 years old,” Zirkle said. “We’re in fifth grade, right? We’re not even teenagers.”

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