Alpine’s Unlikely Ascent

By Beacon Staff

As of last week, Oscar-award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis had never been to Montana. Now she’s performed here once and plans a return trip.

She, her husband, actor Louis Zorich, and David Ackroyd hosted an informal question and answer session Monday in the same vein as Bravo’s “Inside the Actors Studio” at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish. In the summer of 2008 Dukakis will return in a much larger role, starring in an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

Her appearance is another example of the unlikely thriving theater scene in Northwest Montana – one branch of which is being tugged along by Alpine Theatre Project, a three-year-old nonprofit professional theater company that continues to inch closer to its ambitious Web site tagline: “Broadway’s Second Home.”

The theater has drawn high-caliber stage actors before; John Lithgow performed a one-man show earlier this year. But with Dukakis committing to next season, Alpine is riding a wave of momentum in a landlocked small market. “We’re not only growing an audience but growing our recognition in the theater community itself, from LA to New York,” Ackroyd said.

Ackroyd, the company’s artistic development director who has acted on both screen and stage, was essential in luring Dukakis to the Flathead. The pair worked together about 40 years ago at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. When Alpine Theatre Project was still in its infancy, Dukakis agreed to serve on its honorary board. Earlier this year she asked to premiere her next play in Whitefish.

“I said, ‘Let’s think about it for one-tenth of a second,’” Ackroyd said. “Yes.”

Dukakis garnered the best supporting actress Oscar for her role in the film “Moonstruck.” She starred in “Steel Magnolias” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” She’s performed on Broadway, including the one-woman play “Rose.”

In a phone interview, Dukakis said she was looking for a theater to host the show before eventually taking it to New York. “David and his associates think the (Montana) audience will be really absorbed by it,” Dukakis said.

Selling this area to top Broadway actors, Alpine’s executive director Luke Walrath pitches it this way: “It’s not a career move, it’s a lifestyle choice. If you’re interested in being in a beautiful place and doing quality work with good people, this is the place for you.”

Instead of poring over theater reviews and fearing the wrath of critics, actors spend their off time in Whitefish camping and horseback riding. The Flathead audience, which Walrath said can “still be wowed,” is also a selling point.

“They’re savvy, but not stuffy,” he said, “fun-loving but not entirely pedestrian. It’s a nice mix of being sophisticated enough to do interesting work but not so sophisticated where people are jaded.”

Dukakis’s “The Other Side of the Island” is still ambitious, like any Shakespeare adaptation. She will play Prospero, who plots her revenge after her brother has contrived to take away her status. “It has real resonance today,” she said, but couldn’t predict a Montana audience’s response. “I don’t know. It will be interesting.”

Alpine Theatre Project actors are confident the show will draw large crowds and said the company is now being recognized as a regional theater. “It’s unheard of for a theater that operates primarily in the summer to do (premieres),” Walrath said.

“It’s big for us,” Ackroyd added. “It’s a really big step.”

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