Cast members L-R: Danielle Sather, Tsiambwom M. Akuchu, Gonzalo Valdez, Jennifer Waters Howells and Aila Ayliam Peck (front). PHOTO COURTESY OF JENNIFER WATERS HOWELLS

Making Jeannette famous

A play about a Montana heroine debuts on WMPAC stage

The cast and crew of Behind the Curtain: Jeannette a New Musical, offered in-person and virtually at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center (WMPAC) last weekend, worked in six different time zones, including Hawaii.

The process was directed and choreographed via Zoom and rehearsals were socially distanced and facemasked. In New York and California, where Jeannette has been developing for the past three years, unions do not allow gatherings of actors, writers, directors, etc. out of an effort to keep creatives safe during the pandemic. Thus, the chance to take the play to WMAPC was a unique opportunity.

“It was incredibly refreshing and uplifting to see real people sitting in the audience for our three live shows as well as our many virtual audience members joining in and supporting us, alongside our creative team cheering us on,” Jennifer Waters Howells, cast member, said.

“WMPAC has been incredibly safe. They are working in the most low-risk way possible,” Erin Ortman, director of Jeannette, said.

Ortman grew up in Helena, Mont. She found her love for theater at the local Grandstreet Theater, left the nest to receive incredible training and eventually and came back to her home state to direct a play with a Montanan protagonist—virtually.

“That’s one of the reasons working in Big Sky is so special for me,” Ortman said.

Ortman has not actually met John Zirkle, WMPAC director, in person. They met during the pandemic and stayed connected virtually to bring not only Jeannette, but three other projects to WMPAC’s A New Kind of Season.

“Both the creative team of Jeannette and John have been living in a space of optimism,” Ortman said, figuring out how to keep art alive during a complicated time.

“It feels so good to be creating in this difficult time,” Zirkle said at the beginning of Saturday evening’s show.

Aila Ayilam Peck, cast member who portrayed Jeannette Rankin, is a regional actress familiar with Montana, having performed with Shakespeare in the Parks and WMPAC before. “Using the Covid restrictions to liberate us rather than keep us from creating something was a transcendent experience for me as an artist,” she said.

Jeannette offered a unique way for audience members to see how a Broadway-bound play is realized. Narrated by book writer Lauren Gunderson, one of the most produced playwrights in America, and composer/lyricist Ari Afsar, viewers were guided via screen and a selection of songs, as well as projections designed by David Bengali, choreography by Yusha-Marie Sorzano and new orchestrations by Tony Award-winning Todd Sickafoose.

Their ideas were explored and tested, and most importantly, there was a story to tell.

Act I explored the relationship between Jeannette Rankin, first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916 hailing from Hellgate, Montana, and her family as she began her political journey. Younger sister Edna is supportive but worries about Jeannette’s safety. Mother, Olive, has huge reservations. Brother Wellington, with the benefit of the patriarchy, asks Jeannette to ‘wait until the men do it and be grateful,’ but eventually helped propel Jeannette’s career to new heights.

Jeannette joins the suffragists and meets Greenwich, a figure of historical fiction and an amalgamation of many suffragists that influenced Jeannette. When Jeannette returns home from touring the state, Wellington urged her to give a speech in support of suffrage in Montana, which pushed approval along in the state.

The first act ends with Jeannette winning her seat in the House of Representatives.

Between Act I and II, we leave Jeannette and turn our focus to the actors on stage.

“Jeannette Rankin was a white woman who trailblazed her way to breaking a glass ceiling,” Ortman said. Jeannette honors that history, but with a diverse cast, focuses on the glass ceilings that have yet to break.

“Disrupt”, the portion of the play where we hear the actors’ points of view, is meant to ‘wake up the audience from the white narrative,’ Ortman said. At WMPAC, we learn what the power of voting means to the five cast members.

“Disrupt is always created by the actors who are currently in the play,” Ortman said. The narratives change depending on who is onstage.

Act II follows Jeannette in D.C. and the storm that shadows her vote against the first World War. Her popularity decreased and many felt this vote pushed back the progress of the 19th Amendment. Many of her staunch supporters abandoned her, including her brother and Greenwich, and another political ally, Fiorello LaGuardia.

Towards the end, Edna bursts into Jeannette’s office, revealing letters written from people around the country who feel Jeannette is the only person who can listen to their concerns and actually create change.

The 19th Amendment passes when Jeannette is no longer in office and she votes for the first time as a citizen.

“I know for me in the process of it, I was filled with this awe of the kind of quiet resolve it requires to really dig deep in the way I feel like she [Jeannette] did,” Peck said. “I believe that quiet resolve is something we could really learn from her right now.”

Fifteen different people from writers to producers to the creative team were integral in making this WMPAC presentation possible.

“There are so many people who have influenced and touched this piece,” Ortman said, and described making a musical as catching ideas floating in space.

The Jeannette creative team is waiting for things to be safer to continue catching ideas and pushing Jeannette into the forefront of people’s minds.

“When Afsar first learned of Jeannette, she was astonished by how few people knew of her,” Ortman said. “We will write this musical and make Jeannette Rankin famous.”

Peck hopes the characteristics of Montana continue to be infused into the play as it heads down the path to Broadway.

“There is just something different about people from Montana,” she said.

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