Craig Huisenga was still living in San Diego eight years ago when he came up with the idea of starting the Yellowstone Repertory Theatre.
He was thinking of returning to Billings to care for his aging parents, but having
worked as a professional actor and director in Seattle, Eugene, Ore., and San Diego, he wanted to be able to continue as a professional if he moved back home.
Billings already had a good theater scene, but it was all community theater, meaning that while there was some money for staff and technical people, the actors worked for free, for their love of the stage. Huisenga wanted to take it to the next level.
“I actually had the name,” he said. “I wrote it down—Yellowstone Repertory Theatre.”
He knew that Montana’s two professional repertory companies survived by touring, regionally in the case of Bozeman-based Montana Shakespeare in the Parks and nationally in the case of Missoula-based Montana Repertory Theatre. He envisioned a Billings-based company bringing its shows to cities up and down the Yellowstone River, from Sidney to Livingston.
When he did move back, in the fall of 2009, he jumped into the theater world and stayed busy, busy enough that the idea of a repertory theater moved into the background for a few years.
He revived his dream of a repertory theater last year, when he acted in the Sacrifice Cliff Theatre production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The play was directed by Sarah Butts and also featured actors Dina Brophy and Caitlin Hart.
Huisenga already had the idea; now he had his dream team. In January of 2016, over post-rehearsal drinks with Brophy and Hart, he broached the subject and discovered that they were hungry for the same thing.
“It wasn’t as though it was something I had to think about,” Brophy said. “The three of us were on the same wavelength as far as the work we wanted to do.”
The work, she said, would be “gritty, meaty pieces,” theater classics and works by contemporary playwrights that seemed destined for greatness. And, of course, they would pay their actors.
They asked Butts, who had just earned a master of fine arts degree in directing from the University of California, Irvine, to join them in forming the YRT, and initially they thought “Virginia Woolf” would be the company’s first production. But it was quite enough to direct and act in that long, intense play without having to worry about finding a space, obtaining insurance, selling tickets and doing all the other front-office chores.
So they asked Sacrifice Cliff to be the producer and waited until that run was over and the time was ripe for launching their new company. That time was last night. Last Best News caught up with Huisenga, Brophy and Hart Tuesday afternoon, as they were preparing for their coming-out party Tuesday evening at the Art House Cinema & Pub.
There, in front of an audience of board members (they have four so far), other members of the theater community, potential donors, friends and family, they were planning to formally introduce the Yellowstone Repertory Theatre.
Huisenga will be the artistic director, Brophy the managing director, Hart the marketing director and Butts the artistic associate. Butts is moving to Seattle but plans to come back to Billings to direct at least one show a year.
Plans are to have a soft opening this spring with a production of “Doubt, a Parable,” by John Patrick Shanley, scheduled for April 21-May 6 at 2905 Montana Ave., an event and performance space that opened last year. Huisenga will direct that, and Butts plans to direct the play that will officially launch YRT next fall—Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”
Both those plays won the Pulitzer Prize, as did the third play planned by YRT—Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart,” which they plan to offer in the spring of 2018. Performances venues will vary based on the needs of each production.
Brophy, who has been active in the Billings theater scene for 15 years, said “Virginia Woolf” was something of a test for the fledgling group, a challenging drama that would tell them whether Billings was ready for the kinds of work she and the others in YRT wanted to bring in.
“And it was overwhelmingly favorable,” she said, referring both to ticket sales and audience reaction.
“These are shows that we know people are interested in,” she said. “Our people are out there. They just aren’t necessarily filling the seats of the other theaters.”
Hart, the youngest member of the company, is a Billings native who studied theater at the University of Montana and then did three four-month national tours with the Montana Repertory Theatre. Huisenga saw her at the Alberta Bair Theater showing of “The Miracle Worker” and was “just blown away,” he said.
No matter how good community theater is, Hart said, something changes when it becomes paid, professional work.
“There’s just a different level of commitment because there has to be,” she said. Working with the Montana Rep, she said, “I really felt great about everything I did because everyone brought everything they had.”
She and her husband were thinking of moving away from Billings until this opportunity came up, and she’s glad they’re staying because she sees a rejuvenation of Billings going on not only in theater but in culture and entertainment offerings in general.
“I’m excited about the opportunity we have to not only create great art, but to really build community,” she said.
Huisenga said they plan to start small, using mostly local actors and staging shows only in Billings. But eventually they’d like to start some touring and to start holding auctions regionally and nationally, perhaps going to Denver, Seattle and Minneapolis to cast a season’s worth of shows. And eventually they’d like to be able to hire union actors, members of the Actors Equity Association, with pay rates based on the size of the venue.
Huisenga said one of his inspirations was watching the growth of live music since his return to Billings. Musicians who might once have played for free are now teaching music classes, playing at pubs and nightclubs and performing with the local symphony.
He wants the same opportunities for local actors.
“I don’t want to sit around and wait for the other theaters to book a show I want to direct and act in,” he said.