By Tim Leeds
The local university has revived its involvement in drama productions.
Havre High School English teacher Jay Pyette, who directs the high school's drama productions and is president of the local acting troupe, Montana Actors' Theatre, began teaching Drama 109, Drama Participation, at Montana State University-Northern this semester. The class hadn't been offered for several years.
"I'm really delighted to see this getting going again," said Northern professor William Thackeray, who had been involved in drama production at the university in the past.
Pyette said the class right now is producing MAT's latest play, Joseph Kesselring's "Arsenic and Old Lace."
"The class is handling the production side of it," Pyette said.
The involvement goes beyond the drama class. One of Joel Soiseth's art classes at the university is designing and producing the posters for the show.
Don Mayer, who is directing the production, said having the classes handling the set work, publicity and other parts of the production puts MAT on the level of professional theater troupes. In professional companies, there are separate units to do each part of the production, he said.
"It takes such a burden off of your shoulders," Mayer said. "Now the cast doesn't have to do that and can work on rehearsing."
Mayer said MAT involved the senior class at Havre High School in the project, too. The seniors are usually involved in a MAT summer production, he said, but the company will be traveling to London this summer to put on Pyette's play "The Dead of Winter." Grant Olson of Havre is producing and directing the show as the thesis for his master's degree from King's College London and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
The production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" has a very large and diverse cast, with 14 members, Mayer said.
The history of drama productions at Northern goes back nearly 60 years. Thackeray, who won best actor and best supporting actor awards while he was attending Northern Montana College from 1955 to 1958, said the program was started by Bill Lisenby, who started teaching at Northern in 1948.
Thackeray said he thinks Lisenby started student productions as soon as he started teaching, or soon after.
Joe Keller started working as the drama technical director at the college in 1957, and Thackeray took over as the drama director when he started teaching at Northern in 1965, he said. Lisenby had gradually left the program by that point, Thackeray said.
Keller was instrumental in getting college credits offered through the drama program, he added. Lisenby's idea was to offer the program as a student activity, rather than an accredited program, Thackeray said.
The college offered a drama minor until 1997.
Mary Clearman, whose husband, Ted Clearman, taught English and directed plays at Havre High, started as a second drama director in about 1969 or 1970, Thackeray said.
The three, Thackeray and the two Clearmans, started a drama troupe in the 1970s.
"We had quite a drama workshop going. We usually put on two or three plays a quarter, maybe eight or 10 a year," Thackeray said.
The troupe produced plays in the community both on and off campus, he added.
When Mary Clearman became dean of arts and sciences in 1985, then left the campus in 1987, the drama program and acting troupe declined and eventually disappeared, Thackeray said. He said he had several other duties and could no longer dedicate the time required for drama when she left.
Several teachers worked as drama directors after that, Thackeray said. Ron Fischli worked the longest in the position, serving from 1985 to 1993. Fischli had been assistant drama director from 1980 to 1983.
The last drama director was J.K. Curry. When she left the university in 1998, the position was not refilled, and there have been no drama classes offered at the university until Pyette revived Drama 109 this semester.
Northern's dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Will Rawn, said the university won't be offering drama as a degree program anytime soon. When it could offer such a program would require looking further into the future than he can see, Rawn said. He added that offering a drama degree is something he would like to do.
"I would be delighted if we could," he said.
The intent of offering the drama class is much the same as the lecture series the university started this year, using a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities, and the nondegree classes offered in music.
"What we're looking at right now is offering the students as many cultural opportunities as possible," Rawn said.
Pyette said the students enrolled in his class are pursuing their individual interests. Some of the students' work has focused on acting, while some have participated in stage management, set and costume production, publicity and other facets.
"It's tailored, I guess, toward the students' interest. We all have a discussion at the beginning about theater and design and production, and then split into individual groups," Pyette said.
Having a university class tie into MAT's work is a natural partnership. Pyette said the acting troupe, as the university's resident company, brings a wealth of diverse experience and ability to the campus. The class helps bring the productions to life, and can supply actors, technical and stage work, and publicity.
"We've got a great relationship," Pyette said. "We work well together, complement each other."
"Arsenic and Old Lace," with ticket prices of $7 for adults and $5 for high school and Northern students and senior citizens, is scheduled for performances at the Northern theater on March 27-29 and April 3-5.