There are two things a person might know about Belt, Montana, population 597. First, Belt is home to the State Class C Girls Basketball Champions for three years running. Second, Belt is home to the Harvest Moon Brewing Company, makers of two microbrews served in many Montana establishments, Beltian White and a porter named after the rear end of a pig
Montanans think of basketball and cowboys and good beer when they think of Belt. One thing they probably don’t think about is William Shakespeare. Belt Valley High School English teacher Jeff Ross would like to change that. With a great love and passion for Shakespeare, but very little formal training in theatre, Ross is slowly transforming the ballroom of an old theatre in downtown Belt into a replica of Shakespere’s Globe Theatre, and building an impressive youth Shakespeare program in the heart of the Montana Hi-Line.
On a late March afternoon that should have been much warmer, I visited Mr. Ross and his students to watch rehearsal for their upcoming production of As You Like It. The old Belt Theatre is dilapidated and cold, and as I climbed the creaky stairs past a leaking pipe I wondered how a play could happen here. Mr. Ross met me at the top of the stairs and walked us into the transformed ballroom. It is the only room in the building with heat, and it smelled of fresh paint. A large, 4-inch platform covers most of the floor, with seating for 120 people on raised platforms that Mr. Ross built three-quarters of the way around the stage. A large flowered rug was laid out at the front of the stage. “That’s where the groundlings will sit,” said Ross, referring to pit in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London where the non-royalty stood to watch the play. More likely in Belt it’s where kids will sit who want to get a closer view while their parents sit in the more comfortable folding chairs.
The cast entered the ballroom quietly and sat on stage, completely focused and ready to warm up. There are fourteen high school students and one seventh grader who have been rehearsing with Ross after school four days a week since late October. It’s been an especially snowy winter on the Hi-Line, which has created a lot of challenges for some students in getting to rehearsal, in addition to conflicts with a multitude of other school activities. However, as the cast warmed up with Ross, and then listened to his notes from the last rehearsal, they appeared confident and completely ready for the challenge of opening a play in just a few short days.
“A lot of us are walking around on stage as if we are scripts, not people,” Ross told them during notes, “If we don’t add something to the language of Shakespeare, nobody in the audience will get it. What do we need to add?”
“Lively action!” the cast shouted back at him.
“How do we get on stage?” He challenged them.
And with that, cast members jumped up and began running through various scenes that Ross called out. At one point, the actress playing Phoebe was having trouble getting to the right emotion for a particular moment. Mr. Ross tried modeling for her what he wanted, and she still didn’t get there. He shouted to the rest of the cast sitting off to the sides, “Come on everyone, let’s help her!” Immediately, all the cast members jumped up on stage in a semi-circle around Phoebe and her acting partner, silently surrounding her with their energy and support, until she got the moment. It was remarkable to see how tightly knit the ensemble was and the level of professionalism they were displaying.
Onstage, Ross had clearly worked with them in rehearsal not only to understand the language, but to express Shakespeare’s intent in action as well as words, something that can be a particular challenge for actors who are new to playing Shakespeare. Offstage, they were attentive and focused, watching and learning from what was happening onstage and the coaching Mr. Ross was giving them. It was a fun and joyful learning atmosphere.
As You Like It is Ross’ second Shakespeare play in his six years in Belt, and his first since travelling to London last summer for the Globe Theatre’s Teaching Shakespeare through Performance Program, where he joined 21 other teachers from the United States in a month-long professional development program to learn methods of teaching Shakespeare to young people. The experience was transformational for him, and he now hopes to start a Montana chapter of a Wisconsin-based non-profit program called Young Shakespeare Players. He hopes it will reach beyond Belt to include other students on the Hi-Line and even Great Falls to offer after school and summer Shakespeare classes in an inclusive environment where there are no auditions and everyone gets to participate.
Ross, along with other members of the Belt community, also dreams of a full renovation of the long-abandoned Belt Theatre, so that it can be fully utilized as a performance space. Though they’ve raised some funds to repair a leaking roof, and some interior construction has happened, they are a long way from completion. Ross himself has contributed all of his own money and sweat equity to the construction of the ballroom theatre space, as well as lighting and costumes, which are beautifully constructed by his wife, UM biology lab manager Karen Schmidt, and mother-in-law, Evelyn Parrish. A labor of love, no doubt. But after watching Mr. Ross work with his students, I also hope that the fire he ignites in his young cast, and their enthusiasm both for Shakespeare and for theatre will be contagious, and move others to provide this fledgling program the financial resources it needs to grow and thrive. Who knows? Maybe Belt will someday be famous for basketball, beer–and the Bard.
Belt Valley High School’s production of As You Like It opens this Friday, March 28 at the Belt Theatre in downtown Belt. Click here for ticket information.
This blog posting was updated on March 26 at 3:09 pm.