What's Happening

Theatre Company Interviews: Dramaturge Gretchen Minton, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on May 25, 2021 at 06:00 PM in Project News

This week we follow up our May 17 performance announcement for the opening of the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’s production of Cymbeline on 16 June with an interview with company dramaturge, Gretchen Minton. Read on for insights about the unique history of this amazing company, how they are coping with the challenges of performing in-person during the ongoing pandemic, and their bio-regional vision for the production.

Theatre Company Interviews: Dramaturge Gretchen Minton, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: Could you describe what is unique about Montana Shakespeare in the Parks and its approach to performing Shakespeare?

Gretchen Minton: MSIP is in its 49th season of bringing free, professional productions of Shakespeare and other classics to mostly rural and underserved communities throughout Montana and its surrounding states. All performances are offered at no cost in local parks and public spaces, making them accessible to all.

The cast has historically consisted of 10 professional actors, but this year the number has reduced to 8 because of pandemic logistics. We often set the plays in specific time periods or places, including contemporary ones, but the language of Shakespeare is retained. A talented team of professional set-, costume-, and sound-designers is integral to helping us create specific worlds for these performances. The portable but complex set is constructed by the actors in every location, and audio speakers are also set up in order to bring the audience into the performance through the soundscape. In our hometown of Bozeman where the season begins there is electric lighting, but on the road there is only natural light.

This year Cymbeline will be running in repertory with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These plays lend themselves to similar explorations of nature, human error, and reconciliation.

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: Has the pandemic changed how you will rehearse and perform for future audiences, or shifted your ideas about who that audience will be?

Gretchen Minton: We had to cancel the 2020 season because of the Covid-19 pandemic, so it is a special pleasure to be performing again in 2021. In order to receive permission from Montana State University (our umbrella organization) to conduct this season, we developed a detailed safety plan in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Protection guidelines. The actors will be operating in a bubble that ensures less contact with others, and there is an additional member of the crew who will travel with the company and be in charge of Covid safety protocols. Otherwise, because we perform outdoors, the season can carry on much as it always has. Given that we perform in so many under-served communities which have limited cultural opportunities, the impetus to return to these communities is especially strong.

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: Have you adopted an ecodramaturgical approach to previous theatre work and/or other Shakespeare plays before Cymbeline? How will those productions possibly influence your Cymbeline production?

Gretchen Minton: Yes. In 2014 MSIP’s production of As You Like It, directed by Artistic Director Kevin Asselin, was set in early 20th-century Montana, with the court in the mining town of Butte, and the Forest of Arden in the Yak Valley (a remote wilderness area in the northwest part of the state). The corruption of the court and the class inequities were embodied in the greed and reckless mining practices of the city, as the residents longed for a return to a pre-industrial place of renewal epitomized by Montana’s natural spaces.

In 2017 Asselin and company dramaturge Gretchen Minton developed an ecologically themed production of Macbeth. It imagined a Montana of the future in which society had collapsed because of climate disaster. The clan warfare was caused by resource scarcity and intense fear in this unstable society, where the air was polluted from wildfires, water was difficult to procure, and climate refugees were a constant threat. (For more about this production, see Minton’s article, ‘“… the season of all natures’: Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Global Warming Macbeth” in Shakespeare Bulletin).

Our setting for Cymbeline is less specific, but we are nonetheless drawing upon strong perceptions about space and place that are fundamental to our region. Our design inspiration is the fairy tale world that is so integral to the play—especially the elements of folktales that continually frustrate the human/nature divide. As our posters and design concepts show, we’re inspired by people, structures, and trees growing into one another, intertwining [see image above of the set design for Cymbeline by Tom Watson]. These forces can be both dangerous and deeply generative. Our Belarius character is a woman called Belaria, who preserves a deep wisdom and connection to the natural world that was lost with the corruption of the court.

Theatre Company Interviews: Dramaturge Gretchen Minton, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: What are public attitudes towards climate change and environmentalism in Montana? How will these affect your theatrical presentation?

Gretchen Minton: Montana is generally a conservative state, and the company spends time performing in remote and rural areas where the topics of climate change and environmentalism can be deeply political. However, one thing all Montanans love, across the political divide, is the land. MSIP’s production of Cymbeline taps into the generative power of the landscape, letting the story be told in each locale and embracing the unique geographical features of each place.

Performances that take account of the state’s diverse history of people, stories, and land unfailingly work to build communities. Such community-building is fundamental to MSIP’s mission. A relatively unknown play such as Cymbeline offers surprises for its audiences as it spins tales of deceit, escape to the wilderness, global conflict, and rebirth. We are excited to have this play as part of our region’s rich engagement with Shakespeare.