“A Post on the Prairie,” a new piece by Billings playwright Ryan Gage, was inspired by a setting and by Gage’s love of post-apocalyptic fiction.
The play takes place around a campfire, just as Gage’s first one-act play did when he wrote it eight years ago.
“Part of me always wanted to return to that,” he said, “but with something bigger.”
That something was supplied by the post-apocalyptic context, based on his admiration of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and “The Walking Dead,” the graphic novels that became a hit television series.
However, Gage warned “Walking Dead” fans that “there are no zombies. Anyone coming for zombies will be sorely disappointed.”
The play involves just two people, identified only as The Cowboy and Man, who come to share a fire pit in the wake of an unnamed catastrophe. The Cowboy has already been there a long time, comfortably alone, when Man shows up, and the play revolves around the tension of their relationship.
“It’s almost a very mystical scenario about these two guys linked to this object, this fire pit,” Gage said. And like all good post-apocalyptic stories, he said, “it lets us investigate who we are in the here and now by examining the what if.”
Gage, a Billings native who teaches government at Billings Senior High, from which he graduated in 1996, has written one-acts and two full-length plays before, but he says this is his most ambitious work, and certainly the one to which he has devoted the most time.
“A Post on the Prairie” will premiere at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 2, in the Black Box theater at NOVA Center for the Performing Arts, 2317 Montana Ave.
It is directed by Patrick Wilson, the co-founder of Sacrifice Cliff Theatre Company, who also plays The Cowboy. Carl Redman plays Man.
Gage said he had the idea for the play four or five years ago, and three years ago, with just one scene written, local actors Shawn Bettise and Jayme Green did a reading of it at “Go,” a Sacrifice cliff workshop for writers. The audience of 15 or 20 people was enthusiastic and wanted to hear more, but Gage admitted that the scene was all he had at that point.
After another year’s work he came back with a full play, which was read again by Bettise and Green, and again it was well received. At that point Gage gave the play to some writer friends, and with their detailed critiques in hand he spent another year revising it.
After it was submitted to NOVA and accepted, Wilson signed on as director, and he and Gage have been working closely on the play for half a year.
Wilson said he was drawn to the play because he likes homegrown art and he likes the Montana attitude that pervades “A Post on the Prairie.”
“It’s uniquely Montanan and yet it doesn’t come out and say it,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t need to.”
For Montanans, Wilson said, “place is a part of our identity,” and Gage’s play is very much about a sense of place, of being connected to a landscape. It’s been a “huge challenge” to direct the play and then be one of only two actors, Wilson said, but he has high hopes for the piece.
The challenge was making the audience care a great deal about these two men without a lot of exposition or background, and Wilson thinks Gage managed to do that.
Gage said the play explores an idea that is at the heart of “The Walking Dead”—how “there’s so little trust anymore when everything goes wrong.” On top of that, Gage said, both characters “have unfinished business from before everything went bad.”
He said the play, though it has only two characters, includes comedy, drama, mystery and suspense, and it is full of references to music, literature and pop culture. .
At bottom, he said, it is about people “who have to relearn who and how to trust again. The longer you walk the world alone, the harder it is to open the door to other people.”
The play will run Oct. 2-4, 9-11 and 16-17, with show times at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Go to NOVA for more details.