“Levity”: Born and bred in Big Sky
“Levity” is a stage play about the passing of a legendary rock star named Rick Hayes. Following his death, his children are charged with divvying up his large estate, a process complicated when Hayes’ first wife and former bandmate comes forward, looking for closure… and cash.
To John Zirkle, artistic director at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center, “Levity” is more than just a play he helped bring to Big Sky—it’s the culmination of more than three years of work that began in July, 2014 when playwright Stephanie DiMaggio and actor Ben Graney flew out from New York to meet Zirkle and WMPAC patron Kristin Kern at Buck’s T4 for a creative, collaborative pow-wow.
Within 30 minutes they had scratched out plans on a napkin for the Big Sky Theater Workshop. “The idea was to bring out accomplished theater artists based in New York to Montana to create new work on stage at WMPAC and in Big Sky, in the hopes that nature would inspire them,” Zirkle wrote in a recent email to the Lookout.
At the end of that first workshop, a working draft of “Levity” came together, and members of the community were invited to a first-reading of the play at WMPAC. “It was the summer, and the AC wasn’t working, so we gave everyone a Popsicle,” recalled Zirkle, laughing about it now. “The audience was the first to hear a new play being read by Broadway actors in beautiful Big Sky, Mont. It really inspired everyone.”
Nearly two years went by, and in the meantime WMPAC became a member of the Actors Equity Association—the U.S. labor union that represents more than 50,000 actors and stage managers. WMPAC is one of only three performance art facilities in Montana with that certification, which allows for top-notch actors to perform there.
“Then one day, I woke up with a fire,” Zirkle said. “It’s not about just writing and reading it, it’s about bringing it to fruition. I knew the next step was to produce that play.” He called up DiMaggio and Kern, who agreed the time was ripe to bring the first original theatrical production to Big Sky.
From the first word to the final bow, the Jan. 19 performance of “Levity” will be the world premiere of a stage work created and developed in Big Sky and New York City. “I think ‘Levity’ reflects Big Sky’s cultural identity,” Zirkle said. “We share it with other parts of the country.”
Kern echoed that sentiment. “This is reflective of the incredible bridge being built between Big Sky and Broadway,” she said, noting that Big Sky has been mentioned in Broadway’s Playbill. “People on the east coast know about Big Sky.”
A unique aspect of the show is the inclusion of American Sign Language.
Actor John McGinty is deaf, and “Levity” shifts between spoken English and ASL. “One of the themes of the play is about what gets lost in translation,” Zirkle said. “The audience isn’t going to see the entire play in ASL, but there are moments where they will have to read between the lines.”
It’s taken several years and plenty of work to bring “Levity” to the stage, but Zirkle said it’s all been worth it. He’s currently overseeing the construction of a 50-foot guitar that will reach out from the WMPAC stage into the audience. This has required taking out seating and working with local companies who donated materials and labor to make it happen.
“It’s my favorite show,” Zirkle said. “The most complicated, full-on, all-in show we’ve done at WMPAC. We hope everyone can come.”
Local art complements upcoming WMPAC shows
The WMPAC Visual Arts Committee is excited to present “Sight and Sound,” a showcase of artwork by community members and Lone Peak High School students. The exhibit’s theme works to aid in interpreting the male vocal group Cantus (at WMPAC Saturday, Jan. 13), which sings about sight, and “Levity,” a play about a musician and issues families tackle in the face of loss.
The exhibit will hang at the WMPAC for two weeks, beginning with the Cantus show. Student work was done in Megan Buecking’s advanced art class, where everyone chose a song and created a canvas using multi-media that represents their feelings about the music.
Also there will be interactive activities available where guests can express their own ideas about the art, about sight and about sound and shared human experiences.