Shakespeare Returns to Kalispell

By Beacon Staff

For 36 years, Shakespeare has come to communities throughout Montana each summer. But for the past several years, he has been absent from Kalispell.

On Aug. 21, the Bard is back.

In 2005, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (MSIP) lost its Kalispell sponsor and took the city off its annual summer tour list. But this year the Aspen Group, a development company building Kalispell’s Starling subdivision, is single-handedly funding William Shakespeare’s classic play “Macbeth” at Flathead Valley Community College. The day before on Aug. 20, MSIP holds a rendition of “All’s Well That Ends Well” at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Kathy Jahnke, director of community relations for MSIP, said Kalispell used to be an essential destination for the summer series, with upwards of 500 people attending. Although she expects fewer this year because of the hiatus, she said it’s good to be back in Kalispell.

“It’s kind of like going back home,” Jahnke said.

MSIP holds professionally acted and produced performances across Montana, northern Wyoming, eastern Idaho and North Dakota. The shows are held in towns ranging from remote Birney – population 17 – to Billings. The plays, of course, are always Shakespeare. This year, due to the high number of requests, MSIP is extending the series a week longer into September, putting on a total of 74 shows. They are all free to the public.

Helena (Abbey Siegworth) reads a letter from her new husband, Bertram (Eddie Bennett) as he prepared to abandon her in Montana Shakespeare in the Parks 2008 Summer production of All’s Well That Ends Well. – Photo Courtesy of Winslow Studio and Gallery

The series has gained a significant following over the years. Even the show in tiny Birney in the southeastern part of the state drew a crowd of about 250 from the surrounding areas. Towns with only a few hundred people draw crowds of up to 1,000, Jahnke said.

“Montana’s really interested in seeing Shakespeare,” Jahnke said. “They get a great crowd wherever they go. Sometimes you don’t get that in bigger cities.”

Every MSIP show is held outside if possible. But if the weather is poor on the day of the Kalispell performance, Jahnke said they will move it into FVCC’s indoor theater. Jahnke said it’s unusual for a professionally produced play series to be held outside and, furthermore, she said it’s rare for a performance series to travel to small towns that otherwise would never have any kind of professional performance.

“We’re like pizza delivery,” Jahnke said. “We’re full service.”

The actors come from all over the nation, including Chicago and New York. From June 18 to Sept. 7, the actors are working nearly every day and traveling constantly. They arrive at a location in the early afternoon, set up, rehearse, perform the play, break down the stage and get a little sleep before waking up the next morning to do it all again.

“It’s a very demanding tour, physically and mentally,” Jahnke said.

The Macbeths (Leah Dutchin and Christopher Prentice) make plans to kill a king in the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks 2008 production of Macbeth. – Photo Courtesy of Winslow Studio and Gallery

Dan Short, a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch in Kalispell who has supported MSIP for 20 years, sometimes with his own checkbook and other times through his company, said it’s important for the Flathead Valley to bring the summer series back to the centralized hub of Kalispell. It’s more accessible for many people than Whitefish Mountain Resort.

“I can’t say enough good about what they do,” Short said of MSIP. “The quality of the productions is very, very high and at the same time it’s not your sophomore English Shakespeare. It’s adapted a little bit to contemporary audiences.”

“All’s Well That Ends Well” is one of Shakespeare’s least-performed plays, a contrast to the famous tragedy “Macbeth.” Jahnke said both plays are suitable for Shakespeare aficionados and casual theater fans alike.

“Whether you’re into Shakespeare or not, it’s a wonderful evening,” Jahnke said.