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Montana Shakespeare in the Parks returns

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Riley O’Toole was “sitting on his hands” in his apartment last summer trying to figure out what to do with himself. The actor, who tours with the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks company, was out of work.

“To go a full year without being able to practice my craft is really challenging,” O’Toole said. “I did a number of online plays and virtual readings, but nothing substitutes for that interaction with a live audience.”

Montana Shakespeare in the Park is returning for its 49th year after last year’s touring performances were canceled due to COVID-19.

On Tuesday afternoon, in 97-degree heat, the small troupe of actors were rehearsing for the season’s opening night. The season is scheduled to open at 8 p.m. Wednesday with a performance of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” at the MSU Grove, near the duck pond off 11th Avenue.

O’Toole is eager for Wednesday night’s show. Having gone a full year without live performances will make the night all the sweeter, he said.

“There’s a line in Cymbeline that keeps echoing in my mind: ‘some falls are means the happier to arise,’ it so perfectly fits this summer,” he said. “Taking into account the perspective of last year and everything that’s happened.”

This year won’t be a triumphant return to normalcy for the touring production but rather a measured restoration aimed to keep actors safe while still providing the free performances to more than 60 towns across five states.

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Director Kevin Asselin watches over a rehearsal for a Montana Shakespeare in the Parks performance of 'Cymbeline' on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is returning after a year-long hiatus due to the pandemic for its 49th season.

Changes will be made this touring season, including decreasing the size of the troupe. There will be eight actors instead of the usual 10.

Having fewer actors means each actor has more responsibility, and the plays were adapted to adjust to fewer roles.

The company is adding a ninth person who will function as a COVID-19 safety manager.

“Traditionally, the actors go out on the road by themselves,” said Kevin Asselin, the executive artistic director of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks. “The (company manager) will act as a go between, between our communities and our tour coordinators and audiences.”

The actors are all fully vaccinated. There will be signage at each show reminding folks to be respectful and mindful of their own individual safety.

The group will tour mainly in Montana, but hit towns in Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Actor Rachel Cendrick, of Arlington, Texas, is most excited to visit Montana’s national parks while on tour, she said.

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Director Kevin Asselin, gives instructions to Mikey Gray, left, and Robert Hunter Bry during a rehearsal for a Montana Shakespeare in the Parks performance of 'Cymbeline' on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is returning after a year-long hiatus due to the pandemic for its 49th season.

“It’s, like, amazing that I’m getting paid to do theater and do what I love and entertain people in the most gorgeous places in the country,” she said.

It’s her first time to Montana and her first time working on a touring show.

“I came out of grad school feeling like I had all this training and all this knowledge,” she said. “This show is really the first time I got to hone my skills and put into play the skills I learned in grad school.”

All actors cast for the 2020 season were asked to return in 2021, Asselin said. Those actors come from Bozeman and around the country to perform in MSIP.

For many of the actors, this summer is their ticket back to working in their careers after the pandemic shuttered most venues, events and performances.

“The pandemic was devastating for our theatrical community,” Asselin said.

In the latter half of 2020, unemployment among actors rose to 52.3%, according to data from the National Endowment for the Arts. The overall unemployment rate during the same time was 7.9%.

“If actors aren’t performing, they’re working in restaurants,” Asselin said. “It’s doubly hard for artists.”

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Brandon Burditt, playing the role of Cymbeline, chastises Robert Hunter Bry, playing the role of Posthumus, during a rehearsal for a Montana Shakespeare in the Parks performance of 'Cymbeline' on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is returning after a year-long hiatus due to the pandemic for its 49th season.

The pandemic was hard on MSIP. Asselin spent much of last summer “strategizing” how to stay afloat during the pandemic.

The company made it through 2020, he said, thanks to individual donors, state grants and COVID-19 relief.

Working with MSIP will be Brandon Burditt’s first professional acting job —more than a year in the making.

Burditt, of Urabana, Illinois, was cast in “Cymbeline” last year. But the tour was canceled. Another gig he had lined up in Atlanta was also canceled.

This year, “I jumped on the opportunity to come back,” Burditt said.

He recently completed his graduate degree in acting from the University of Illinois. He’ll play the titular role in “Cymbeline.” He’s excited to portray a Shakespearean king as a Black actor and lend a new perspective to audiences. He also plays Oberon and Theseus in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

It’s Burditt’s first time in Montana and his first time working with the company. He said walking outside his apartment in Bozeman and seeing a 360-view of mountains was overwhelming, at least compared to the typical vista of cornfields in Illinois.

He’s excited to see the other mountain views in Montana and to be part of a summer staple in the state.

“There’s something exciting about traditions coming back, and it’s really humbling to be a part of that tradition,” Burditt said.

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Cast and crew of a Montana Shakespeare in the Parks performance of 'Cymbeline' listen to instruction on set on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is returning after a year-long hiatus due to the pandemic for its 49th season.

This story has been updated to correct the name of Riley O'Toole.

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Juliana Sukut can be reached at 582-2630 or jsukut@dailychronicle.com

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