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Michael Legg

When the Montana Repertory Theatre returns to live performances this year, you can pay whatever you feel like to get in.

For its 2021-22 season, the professional theater in residence at the University of Montana is switching to a “pick what you pay” model. It lets people decide their own price as a way of opening up the shows to people regardless of their income.

Artistic Director Michael Legg said that part of their mission is to “figure out how to remove cost as a barrier whenever we can,” and that “we really feel like art should be for everyone.”

Their goal is to improve access to the arts. Legg said that over the past year, he’s personally seen the struggles that people have with rising housing costs in Missoula, and that a theatrical show may be out of their reach. It’s an extension, too, of their community ticket program — in the past, they would give a block of tickets to nonprofits, particularly those who work with underserved or underrepresented people, who would disperse them so they can have a theatrical experience.

“Right now, what a lot of us need is to get away and hear a good story, and everybody deserves the opportunity to do that,” Legg said.

NorthWestern Energy has signed up as the sponsor for the program.

The university is in the process of updating its ticketing system. The way it will work now is that if you want a ticket in advance, you can go to the website and select a tier — $5, $10, the suggested price of say, $25, or higher if you’re feeling generous. Or you’ll be able to drop by the UMArts Box Office in the PAR/TV Center and pay exactly what you want, or do the same at the door.

Setting aside the pricing, too, he wants to try to encourage a broader audience.

“Unfortunately, theater is one of those mediums that can feel elitist,” he said. Tickets can be expensive, because productions are expensive — writers, licensing rights, sets, costumes, actors.

They’re aware that theater has a reputation as an elitist art form, and they’d like to reach people who might not otherwise go. Then, if they like what they’ve seen, they might be more inclined to attend a show in the future.

It’s a model that’s been adopted by theater groups around the country. For instance, Available Light, a nonprofit theater in Columbus, Ohio, has been employing it since 2008. The Oakland Theater Project in the Bay Area found success growing its subscriber base with a pay-as-you-can format starting in 2018.

Setting aside the pricing model, this year marks a return to more traditional theater for the Rep, which spent 2020-21 trying most any experiment you could think of. They commissioned a play to be performed at a vintage fire lookout at Fort Missoula; a series of short audio plays you listened to on your phone; and worked with UM students on an app that took you on a walking loop on the Hip Strip, river trail and downtown while telling a story through video and audio unlocked by geolocation.

The shows ahead are all in-person performances, and the Rep plans to comply with any guidelines set by the Missoula City-County Health Department.

New season

The works for the 2012-22 season are keyed into topical subjects, including homelessness, poverty, displacement by gentrification, and modern-day veterans’ readjustment to civilian life.

‘Back to School’

Sept. 22-25, Sept. 29-Oct. 2. 7:30 p.m. Western Cider then Willard School.

The Rep’s “Plays on Tap” series, postponed since last year, will return as normal.

It works like this: You can meet up at Western Cider for drinks, then hop on a yellow bus and arrive at Willard School. There, you’ll see a series of five short plays written especially for this readymade environment, such as the teacher’s lounge or gym.

The writers are Vivian J.O. Barnes, Margaret E. Douglas, Jean Ann Douglass, Sam Myers, and Brian Quijada. (Jean Ann Douglass wrote “The Fog,” the Rep’s fire-lookout play, from last season.)

‘Hearth: A Yuletide Tale’

Dec. 9-11, 16-18, 7:30 p.m. Zootown Arts Community Center’s Show Room and UM campus

The Rep commissioned Tyson Gerhardt, a UM theater graduate, to write a show with his folk group, the Recession Special, for the holidays. In their story, a “young boy wanders off on a cold December night into a world of ragpickers, tramps and buskers struggling to survive in the winter” and seeks out ways to help them.

It will be a stripped-down presentation, just actors on stage. They’ll have audience talkbacks after each show, which Gerhardt will use for more drafts of the show for a fully staged production next year.

“The audience will have a direct impact on what the show becomes,” Legg said.

They hope they can make it into an annual tradition, not unlike “The Nutcracker” or “The Rocky Horror Show Live.” They’re performing it both on campus and at the ZACC as a way to “get this out into the community a little bit, too.”

‘The Castle with a Thousand Lights’

March 4-5 at 7:30 p.m., March 5-6 at 2 p.m., plus a state tour.

The annual educational touring show also targets a timely subject. They commissioned Sam Myers, a playwright from northern Wyoming, to write a show that touches on displacement through a fantastical lens.

Legg hasn’t heard the perspectives of children in the housing crisis, he said. It involves two teenagers, one of whom might have to move. The more whimsical elements include a “warlock in a castle on a hill, nestled in the mountains of a magical, faraway land (which looks a lot like Missoula)” according to the news release.

‘ReEntry’

April 7-9, 13-16 at 7:30 p.m., April 10 and 17 at 2 p.m., plus a state tour.

Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez wrote the play based on interviews with Marines returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s not a fictionalized account, it’s people who actually served who are telling their stories, and their real words,” Legg said.

The show will tour around the state to about six cities, and ideally find a stop in Great Falls and draw an audience from Malmstrom Air Force Base. The show was picked in part because of the state’s high percentage of veterans.

It calls for a cast of five, and the Rep encourages performers with military experience or family members who served to audition.

The Rep traditionally has auditioned union members of the Actors’ Equity Association, so that UM students have the opportunity to work alongside professionals. However, the guild has issued guidelines during the pandemic that the Rep’s venues can’t meet, regarding safety in venues, such as air-flow exchange rate, and COVID safety standards.