HELENA — Every night this week, actors have taken to the stage at the Helena Avenue Theatre. They’re rehearsing their roles for a series of plays that will be featured this month in the eighth annual Last Chance New Play Fest. This edition marks a new beginning, both for the festival and for the venue itself, after difficult times during the pandemic.
The New Play Fest, produced by the Experimental Theatre Cooperative, showcases work from Montana playwrights. Executive producer Rebecca Ryland says the goal isn’t just to give them more exposure, but to help them grow as writers.
“We rely on audiences’ feedback and talkbacks in order to help encourage our playwrights to develop their craft,” she said.
In previous years, the festival hasn’t had a permanent location. Ryland says they would create temporary performance spaces in empty storefronts and other buildings. Now, though, they’ve connected with the Helena Avenue Theatre.
Ryland says it’s made a big difference.
“Just like artwork, when art is in a frame, it suddenly is gallery-worthy,” she said. “When you’re in an actual theatre space, then suddenly the work itself is elevated – which is pretty normal and understandable. Art and theatre can happen anywhere at any time. We are just very fortunate now to be in a nice theatre space where we have lights and sound.”
The Helena Avenue Theatre is in the Sixth Ward, in a building once occupied by Helena Industries. The building is now owned by Ray Kuntz, who set it aside as a home for local nonprofits.
One of those nonprofits is the Montana Playwrights Network. Pamela Mencher, the group’s president, says they had been looking for a new performance space for several years when they were invited to look at this location. They worked with Slate Architecture to fully remodel the space, adding a stage, control booth, dressing rooms and box office. They planned to launch the theatre in the spring of 2020 – until COVID-19 hit.
“We literally were doing the advertising for our gala grand opening, Bards of the Big Sky, and then the week before we were to open, we had to close,” Mencher said. “So we’ve been waiting all that time.”
This September, after more than a year of waiting, they were finally able to hold that show.
“It definitely was worth it,” said Mencher. “It was a grand launch.”
The Montana Playwrights Network plans to put on four or five of its own events each year and to make it available for other performance groups, as well as conferences and similar events.
In 2020, the Last Chance New Play Fest was set to be one of the first groups to use the new stage. Instead, they had to record their performances and share them over the internet. This year, they will be welcoming live audiences back in – though they will still be asking them to wear masks.
Ryland says it’s exciting to get back to in-person performance.
“This is our opportunity now to take that torch and bring the next piece to life on stage,” she said.
The Last Chance New Play Fest will begin on Friday, Nov. 5., and run through Sunday, Nov. 14. A full schedule is available on the Experimental Theatre Cooperative’s website.
Tickets are $15 at the door, $12 for students and seniors and $30 for a fest pass.
You can find more information about the Helena Avenue Theatre on the Montana Playwright Network’s website.