Building Sets, Fostering Connections

Theater students at FVCC build the sets for Alpine Theatre Project's summer season on stage, forming a new relationship between the groups

By Molly Priddy
FVCC theater students build sets in Kalispell on June 1, 2018. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Existing in the Flathead Valley means fostering relationships with others in order to survive. These connections are imperative, whether it’s a business, a person, or an organization.

At Flathead Valley Community College, the theater department was all sparks and the smell of soldered metal last week as the students there embarked on a new relationship that they’re building, in the most literal sense, with Alpine Theatre Project in Whitefish.

These theater students — members of the student club, Mask and Hammer — are designing and building the set that will house ATP’s summer repertory theater programming, three high-power shows burgeoning with top local and Broadway-caliber talent.

Rich Haptonstall, a professor in the theater and music department at FVCC, said the collaboration between his students and the professional theater company is a simple matter of symbiosis, benefitting everyone.

“It’s a win-win, because ATP gets a really good-quality set, not to mention for a price much less than what they’d pay for work out of a shop (out of state),” Haptsonstall said. “And I’ve got these students who get invaluable experience.”

Summer is the season for theater in the Flathead, and this type of relationship makes the burden feel lighter, he said.

It started last year, when Haptonstall worked with ATP to a build set they’d already designed but needed to be built. He took on the project, which three theater tech students were able to build and install in their free time, under budget and on time.

The students did the project for experience’s sake, but this year, ATP has delegated the design work to Mask and Hammer, not just the construction. The resulting structure is a vertical stage, six squares framed by hand-welded steel that could be used for any of the plays.

It’s an incredible opportunity for the students to learn from another theater, as well as other directors and production designers, Haptonstall said, but it’s also a chance for the club to do some much-needed fundraising. Building the set for ATP will add $3,000 to the club’s coffers, and ATP is paying for materials.

“This collaboration has been so easy and productive,” Haptonstall said.

Not only will the theater and students work together on this project, but ATP takes on student interns as well. This summer, 18-year-old Caitlyn Goemer will learn the ropes on a seven-week paid internship. Last week, she was backstage cutting steel to build the stage in what is her first real work as a theater tech.

“I act mostly, and tech is new for me,” Goemer said. “This internship is going to be some pretty valuable hands-on experience.”

Her work will largely focus on lighting and electrical tech needs, but she intends to be a sponge, soaking up everything about the experience she can as she heads into her new designation as a theater major this fall.

Haptonstall said working with ATP production manager Rachel Naber-Burke, outreach specialist Luke Walrath, and producing artistic director Betsi Morrison has been a dream, especially since Naber-Burke, as a production manager, always pulls through in a pinch.

The new set will load into the Whitefish Performing Arts Center on June 11.

Collaboration is a hallmark of Northwest Montana theaters, Haptonstall said, because it’s rare that any one group has everything it will ever need for a show; a lot of the time, they’re lending each other props, costumes, and other necessities to get shows off the ground.

“All the theaters in the valley collaborate way more than people think,” he said. “There’s just no reason to work against each other, though friendly competition makes us all better.”

For more information about Alpine Theatre Project, visit

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