Art in Park County

Kevin Brustuen  |  Monday Jun. 3rd, 2019

In 1864, a young William Alderson left his home in Virginia and headed west, joining a growing rush to the latest gold strikes, namely a little-known town nestled in the mountains, called “Virginia City” in Montana Territory. Stopping off in the brand-new settlement known as Bozeman, Alderson soon became the editor of the Bozeman Avant Courier, a daily newspaper. Within a few short years, Alderson founded his own newspaper, the Livingston Post. By 1901, Alderson’s newspaper was successful enough that he built his own newspaper building at 113 East Callender Street in Livingston. 

In 1964, a theater troop without a theater to perform in, known as the Park County Theatre Guild, presented their first play, A Mighty Man is He, at the golf club in Livingston and part of a historical tradition had begun. In 1966, this acting company acquired the former print shop of John Alderson and – removing the original printing presses from the main floor — created the stage where one can see live performances in the Blue Slipper Theatre, put on by the same Park County Theatre Guild, now in its 55th year. “The Blue Slipper Theatre is a building where stories have been told since the building was first built, continuing on to the present day,” says Rebecca Ruhd, a current board member for the Blue Slipper Theatre.

Park County Theatre Guild is a non-profit acting company run by a seven-member board of directors who select the plays and run the day-to-day business of an acting company and a theatre. The Blue Slipper Theatre offers an interesting mix of classics and modern cutting-edge exploratory plays. A few examples of Blue Slipper productions over the last several years include True West, Proof, Harvey, Venus in Fur, Steel Magnolias, On Golden Pond, and Antigone. Typically offering five main-stage productions per year, Blue Slipper’s 2019 season offers No Exit, Circle Mirror Transformation, Art, Pride and Prejudice, and The Tin Woman.

On June 21, the Blue Slipper opens a six-performance run of Art, the third play of their 2019 season. Playwright Yasmina Reza wrote this play in 1994, with its premiere performance in Paris. The English translation of Art opened in London’s West End before moving to Whitehall Theatre, where it ran continuously for eight years. In 1998, Art won the Tony Award for Best Play and went on a Broadway run of 600 performances.

How can one determine the value of a work of art? What is a painting worth, how do you know what it’s worth? The play Art takes up these questions, alongside the themes of friendship, honesty, deceit, and the fear of purposelessness. Reza was inspired to write Art by thinking about the valuation of pieces of art, especially when certain pieces of art seem to be “nothing” – such as a blank canvas. One can easily imagine Reza meandering through one of Paris’s famous art galleries as a source of her inspiration. The value of a work of art is clearly in the eye of the beholder, but why do some people pay thousands of dollars for something as simple as a mono-colored canvas? It’s what someone thinks of that work, right? Who among us has not had those conversations: “What is the value of a piece of art?” “How can someone possibly pay THAT much for a simple piece like that?” “Even I could have done a work like that!” Art explores what happens between friends when they don’t share the same values of artistic works, exposing pettiness, magnanimity, disingenuousness, soul-searching, and honesty, along with attempts at empathy towards others.

The French-born Reza, winner of the 2009 “Best Play” Tony Award for her God of Carnage play, is known for her exploration of characters and dialogue. Reza is fascinated with aspects of a character’s personality, their motivations, and an exploration into a character’s psyche. She has a good feeling for words and rhythm, creating plays that practically sing with the beauty of the dialogue. Art in particular offers a keen look into human nature, giving people a lesson, as it were, into ideas and observations they can take home and apply to their own lives. Reza writes in French but feels that American English idiom is the next closest to French in its expressiveness and ability to make the text available to the audience.

The ghosts of the Blue Slipper Theatre continue to haunt the building, some from the Livingston Post newspaper era, some from the still-echoing footsteps of actors we’ve seen- and still see – perform on the current stage. Art imitates real-life in how it takes a look at conversations that often do occur around Park and Gallatin Counties, especially Livingston and Bozeman. There is a plethora of artists living in southwestern Montana and a very common topic is the value of art, of what makes art, “art.” Like William Alderson discovered in 1901, the building that houses the Blue Slipper is a great place to tell stories. Park County Theatre Guild continues that same tradition of storytelling on June 21 by staging Yasmina Reza’s Art.

The play Art opens on June 21 and runs until July 7, 2019 at the Blue Slipper Theatre, 113 East Callender Street, downtown Livingston. All performances start at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings, with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, please go to www.blueslipper.org or call 406-222-7720.  

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