A Stage of Their Own

Alpine Theatre Company establishes ongoing theater classes in a new operational home base in Whitefish

By Molly Priddy
Luke Walrath leads a class for Alpine Theatre Project. Beacon File Photo

For 14 years, the Alpine Theatre Project has created magic on stage, bringing in theater professionals to entertain the valley while also building strong foundations for the next generation of natural talent found here.

Also in that amount of time, ATP has managed to amass nine storage units full of everything needed to turn a stage into a new world and actors into characters who live in it.

“We had no place to put [anything] so we’ve been storing them,” Luke Walrath, education and outreach coordinator for ATP, said.

It was always the dream to have their own space, not just for storage but also for new projects, but Walrath and fellow ATP founding artist and producing artistic director Betsi Morrison fast-tracked that dream last year, knowing the time was right.

“We had been looking at some other spaces, and they weren’t either right or we couldn’t make it work,” Walrath said. “Then I passed this old auto garage that was just sitting empty on Highway 93 and I thought, ‘Well, this might work.’ Betsi said it was perfect.”

And after gaining approval from the board of directors, for the first time, ATP has a stage to call its own, and its home is in what is now affectionately called “The Garage.”

Located at 6464 Highway 93 S., The Garage used to house Advanced Auto Repair and sits near the highway’s intersection with Commerce Street. The unassuming blue building is already alive with energy, because with the procurement of a space of their own, the theater company is now able to offer the ATP Academy, an afterschool, ongoing series of classes for kids K-12 focused on acting and helping students grow.

Walrath said the Academy was configured so it wouldn’t interfere with ATP’s already popular ATP Kids program and the company’s busy summer season.

Winter session started Jan. 8 and will run eight weeks until March 9. There’s a four-week spring intensive from May 7 to June 4, and the Academy takes the summer off until fall session, running six weeks from Oct. 29 through Dec. 10. After that, the company begins rehearsals for its annual Yuletide Affair event.

Students are broken up into groups according to age and skill set, Walrath said. For many of the younger students, these classes are about learning how to move, how to speak clearly, and most of all, having fun.

For example, the kindergarteners and first graders learned about movement, diction and creative expression by telling fairy tales. Second and third graders focused on ensemble collaboration, dramatic structure, and beginning acting concepts as they study heroes and create their own to bring to life onstage.

“Our focus is primarily musical theater,” Walrath said. “We wanted at least for the older students to have that focus. The younger students aren’t ready for that yet, so we teach through creative play.”

Walrath said ATP felt compelled to start the Academy after researching theater schools in Montana, and finding a lack of ongoing educational classes for kids lasting beyond learning a production and performing it.

“All the concepts that we try to do with the shows, we never have enough time to really work those concepts when we’re in production with the kids,” Walrath said.

And those concepts?

“Confidence, creativity, collaboration, working as an ensemble, and the biggest one for us is empathy,” Walrath said.

Teaching children how to think about others in a way that puts them in their position — having to act out a character’s life, for example — builds skills in recognizing humanity in others. These attributes will go far in a world that seems to be growing ever more caustic, he said.

“We have to start remembering how to look at our fellow humans as humans and not so removed from ourselves,” Walrath said. “What’s great about theater is it forces us to do that. If you’re going to successfully portray a character honestly, you have to put yourself in that mindset and you cannot judge.”

ATP initially hoped to start out with 50 students but has 67, so class openings for the current session are limited; as of last week, Walrath said there were openings in the Broadway dance class and a couple spaces in the high school class.

Having a home of their own not only cuts down on rental costs across the board, but it gives the theater company a center around which its universe can now spin.

“We’re excited,” Walrath said. “It just opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.”

For more information on ATP Academy, visit www.atpwhitefish.org/classes.

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