Theater at the Museum of the Rockies

Kevin Brustuen  |  Tuesday Oct. 1st, 2019

People don’t generally think of a museum as a venue for live theater. In the case of the Museum of the Rockies, for instance, people usually think of dinosaurs, Native American artifacts, and some pioneer-era exhibit pieces. However, this fall the Museum of the Rockies is the site of two theater events which may change your perspective of museums from just a home for artifacts and exhibit pieces to a place where education and thought-provoking, entertaining theater can take place. This fall the Museum of the Rockies hosts Bozeman Actors Theatre’s Enemy of the People in the Hager Auditorium in mid-October, and the museum’s own “Haunted Mountain Theater” in the Planetarium opening the 25th of October.

On the evening of July 1, 1867, in Fort Benton, Montana, Territorial Acting Governor Meagher disappeared. Where he went, no one knows. The fiery yet inspirational former Irish Republican Army leader escaped to America only a few years earlier from an English death warrant, then fought heroically in the American Civil War for several years before coming to Montana and establishing himself as a political leader in the brand-new gold mining town of Virginia City, Montana, where he was named as Acting Governor of Montana Territory in 1866. A well-known and controversial figure even on the Montana frontier, he had his enemies, but he had his fierce friends and protectors as well. This all made his sudden and totally unexpected disappearance on that summer evening in 1867 while on official duties for Montana Territory all the more difficult to explain. Was he murdered? Did he fall overboard the steamship and drown in the Missouri River? Was he kidnapped and taken away? No one knows, and thus stories were invented to help solve a mystery that has never been explained. 

Now, 152 years later, the MOR offers a new experience for museum lovers in Bozeman: an opportunity to relive Governor Meagher’s story, along with four additional acts based on other actual histories from Montana’s past in a live theatre production in the Planetarium called “Haunted Mountain Theater.” Mixing storytelling, science, and history together, Haunted Mountain Theater introduces a new method of historical education and outreach to Bozeman.

Executive Director of MOR Chris Dobbs had years of experience in merging theater with folklore, mythologies, and history before coming to the museum here in Bozeman. Dobbs points out that MOR is famous for its paleontology exhibits, as well as its pioneer-era exhibits, including the Tinsley House, but few people realize just how much material the museum has in storage which could be used to inform us of our history. Dobbs' comments that “theater offers a magical way of bringing people together and history to life. History is often thought to be dry and boring; its direct impact on our lives today is often misplaced. Through theater, the audience can become enraptured and explore history through drama and characters, allowing us to peer into a foreign, bygone culture which can build empathy for people who are not unlike ourselves.”

The Museum of the Rockies was founded in 1957 when Dr. Caroline McGill donated her entire collection of Montana antiques and historical artifacts to Montana State University. The mission of the Museum of the Rockies has expanded beyond the original “this is Montana history” exhibit and has become known for its outreach, education, and life-long learning in science, history, culture, and art. Director Chris Dodd enhances the education mission further by introducing Haunted Mountain Theater to MOR as another way of furthering appreciation and understanding of history and Montana culture.

Dodd and two other MOR staff members selected five scenes from Montana’s history and wrote a script to illustrate these stories as part of a haunted Halloween mystery show. Along the lines of “You can’t make this stuff up” and “truth is stranger than fiction” these scenes will entertain and amaze an audience. Haunted Mountain Theater includes traditional legends, mining tragedies, natural disasters, and unsolved murders, all based on actual histories of Montana’s past. Staging this show in the Planetarium with its state-of-the-art projection equipment as the venue for Haunted Mountain Theater utilizes the full capabilities of 360-degree projection, reducing the need for a traditional set while giving the audience a full immersive experience.

Dobbs talks about the importance a theater show like Haunted Mountain Theater gives to a museum’s outreach when he explains why blending history and theater is important: “What begins as a historic narrative can become embellished and become folklore. To me, these stories are just as important as the real ‘facts’. We tell folk stories because they can entertain, but they also embody the culture’s ideas, attitudes and assumptions. Through this we come in contact with their fears, biases, values, and depravities. Being able to document and bring some of these stories to life and then explain them through a theatrical program is one of the great opportunities of history-based theater.”

Haunted Mountain performances are in the Planetarium inside the Museum of the Rockies. Showtimes are Friday, October 25, 7:00 and 8:30 p.m., Saturday, October 26 6:00, 7:30, and 9 p.m., and Sunday, October 27 at 6 p.m. Due to some mature content and special effects in a dark planetarium, the show is recommended for ages 10 and up.

For more information about Haunted Mountain Theater, go to the Museum of the Rockies website at www.museumoftherockies.org. All proceeds benefit Museum of the Rockies, Inc. a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Opening on October 10, Bozeman Actors Theatre presents Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People in the Hager Auditorium at the Museum of the Rockies. One of the world’s most famous playwrights, Ibsen wrote Enemy of the People as a challenge to the hypocrisy that reigned in late 19th century Europe. Important themes brought out in this play include the integrity of science, ethics of politics, and manipulation of an electorate, making this play relevant to our world today. Indeed, Enemy of the People has seen an explosion of performances across the United States and Europe in the last few years.

Enemy is set in a small mountain town in Norway that depends economically upon the tourists that comes to “take the waters” in the town’s famous natural hot springs. A local doctor, Thomas Stockton, discovers a bacteria present in the water which can only be controlled by shutting the hot springs down until the source of the pollution is removed. Stockman thinks he will become a hero, but instead the townspeople turn against him when they realize they will take an economic hit from shutting down the springs. The townspeople label Stockman an Enemy of the People, and the doctor’s family becomes isolated and fears for their lives, despite their conviction that they are the ones with the facts – and the truth – on their side. 

Enemy of the People director Gordon Carpenter has chosen to use the Arthur Miller adaptation of Ibsen’s play, not only to honor one of America’s greatest playwrights, but also because Miller creates a warmer opening, showing Dr. Stockman thoroughly engaged and appreciated by the townspeople. This friendship “makes the townspeople’s changing relationship towards Stockman more

powerful and poignant,” Carpenter says, “and raises the stakes in the play.”

Written in 1952, Miller’s adaptation is a voice from the era of McCarthyism. ‘Tyranny of the minority’ is a phrase Carpenter uses to describe a sense of what many people in our polarized America feel as we struggle to understand how “the other side” dares to twist facts and truths to “fit their own ends.”

Enemy of the People was also an indirect inspiration for the movie Jaws. In Jaws the water is ‘polluted’ with a deadly shark; in Enemy, the water is polluted with a deadly bacteria. In both stories there is a similar struggle to balance economic growth and prosperity with public good and safety. 

Enemy of the People is a play that generates thought-provoking conversation. Talk-backs following each performance include MSU faculty and community leaders. A special Discussion Forum on Friday evening, October 18, 7:30 at Inspiration Hall in the new Norm Asbjornson building on the MSU campus will give everyone a chance to mingle with the actors as they perform short scenes from Enemy as well as participate in relevant conversations. This forum is free and open to all. Carpenter encourages the public to be part of the dialogue that has always followed Ibsen’s play since it was first performed in 1882. 

Enemy of the People opens on Thursday, October 10, and continues through Sunday October 20. For more information and tickets, please go to: Bozemanactorstheatre.org    

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