Sarah Butts has fond memories of working in Billings, where she had her first professional job in the theater.
“I feel like in many ways I grew up as an artist in Billings,” she said. “So I really feel like I’m coming home.”
That homecoming is temporary, but she has come back to Billings after four years away to direct a play she calls “a beast,” Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
She was asked to direct the play last February, five months before she was to graduate with an MFA in directing from the University of California, Irvine.
She said she figured, “I might as well start with one of the hardest plays in the American canon. Why not?”
As it turned out, she would first direct a new musical version of “James and the Giant Peach,” at the Grandstreet Theatre in Helena, but it takes a certain amount of courage to direct “Virginia Woolf” at any point in your career, as it does to act in it.
This is the play that the Village Voice called “a crucial event in the birth of a contemporary American theatre.” The New York Times called it “an expression of the viewpoint that self-interest is a universal, urgent, irresistible and poisonous agent in modern life.”
It won Albee a Tony Award in 1962 and in 1966 Elizabeth Taylor won her second Best Actress Oscar for playing Martha in a film version of the play opposite Richard Burton’s George.
In this new production of the play, which has not been produced in Billings since 1981, Craig Huisenga and Dina Brophy play the married couple whose tempestuous relationship is at the core of “Virginia Woolf.” Brophy said she and Huisenga began thinking of doing the play five years ago, when they played a married couple in “Man from Nebraska” at the old Venture Theatre.
“He leaned over at one point and said to me, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ And I said, ‘Hell, yes!’”
They started talking last winter about finally putting the play on, at one point thinking of producing it themselves. Lucky for them, Patrick Scott-Wilson and Shad Scott-Wilson, co-founders of Sacrifice Cliff Theatre Company, offered to produce it for them. The Scott-Wilsons found the rehearsal and performance space—the Black Box Theater at the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts, the successor to Venture Theatre—and are in charge of publicity and fundraising.
Early on, Huisenga and Brophy enlisted veteran actor Caitlin Hart to play the other female role, Honey. They knew Butts would be graduating from Irvine in June and asked her to direct, with Brophy calling her “truly our first choice as director.” They later found the fourth member of the cast, Shane McClurg, for the role of Nick.
In the play, Martha and George, a college history professor, invite campus newcomers Honey and Nick to their house after a faculty party. Honey and Nick go, only to find themselves entwined in an all-night, booze-fueled battle between George and Martha.
It is a long play, a little more than two and a half hours long, and it is mentally and physically difficult for the actors. Butts said they all have been exhausted—exhilarated but exhausted—after every rehearsal. Huisenga said he was an understudy for the role in San Diego years ago, when he learned that “George” is the biggest role in English-language theater, with more lines than “Hamlet.”
“I’ve had some leads, but never someone who loved to talk as much as this one,” Huisenga said. He called the role “one of those bucket-list-list things.”
If you go
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opens Friday, Oct. 21, at 7:30 p.m. in the Black Box Theater at the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts, 2317 Montana Ave.
It will continue at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 5, with a 2 p.m. performance on Sunday, Oct. 30.
As with all Sacrifice Cliff productions, admission is pay what you will, but seating is limited. For reservations, call 672-9291 or email email@example.com.
Besides that stint as an understudy, he has seen the play in several productions, read it, watched the movie and taught it in college classes. “I really lived with this play for a long, long time.”
Brophy said any woman who has worked her way up in the theater world “has probably drooled over” the chance to play Martha.
“The responsibility I feel to do it justice is really weighty,” she said.
They all felt even more responsibility when Albee died in mid-September at the age of 88. Butts said she had been immersed in Albee, reading his plays, essays and interviews, and “I found myself really inspired by what this man had done.”
When they heard of Albee’s death, she said, “I think we all felt, collectively, that it made it even more meaningful to do this play now.”
Although the play is more than 50 years old and was seen as a pitiless examination of the reality of Eisenhower-era America, Butts said the current crazy election season made it seem more relevant than ever. She said Albee looks at “the illusions we create to conceal or distort the truths we’re afraid to face.”
Although on one level the play is about George and Martha’s battles over illusion and reality, Butts said, “what Albee is getting at is that we do it on a national level, too.”
The play can be confusing and upsetting and it is full of strong language and explosive emotions—which will be intensified by theater-in-the-round seating at the Black Box—but Butts said play-goers will probably be surprised by “the comedy that lives in the play.”
Butts, a native of Bigfork, first came to Billings in 2005, shortly after earning bachelor’s degrees in theater and psychology from Carroll College in Helena. She spent seven years at Venture Theater, as the Venture in the Schools educator, then as conservatory director and finally as associate artistic director.
After leaving the Venture in 2012, she spent a year as a free-lance director in Montana and then three years at Irvine, earning her MFA. She directed three productions during each year of graduate school and did some assistant directing in a few outside locations, including the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
Without that intensive training, she said, she doubts she would have felt up to directing “Virginia Woolf.” Brophy and Huisenga praised her directing skills. Brophy noted “the energy she puts into the script every day,” and Huisenga, who worked under Butts years ago, said she came back from Irvine “with even sharper skills.”
So, where do you go after directing a play like this? Butts said she wants to direct more Shakespeare and is interested in Lillian Hellman and Samuel Beckett. And she’s never directed a Tennessee Williams play.
“I’m definitely itching to tackle that,” she said.
She and her husband, Blaine Jensen, plan to remain in Billings through the end of November, spend the holidays in Bigfork and then move to Seattle, where Butts will look for opportunities in a varied, vibrant theater scene.