Bicycle-borne theater troupe on the road across Montana

During rehearsals in Great Falls, Kean Haunt, on stilts, interacts with Jackie Rivera, Sam Cordes and John Paul Olsen, playing the part of a talking bear. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

GREAT FALLS — It almost sounds like some kind of Olympic event: Bike 1,200 miles across the rugged terrain of Montana in six weeks, stopping every few days to put on a play.

And carry everything you need to live and perform—food, clothing, sleeping gear, costumes, sets, props and musical instruments—on those bicycles. It’s a combination that Billings native Kean Haunt finds intriguing and satisfying.

“It’s a really cool balance between very pragmatic concerns with highfalutin artistic stuff,” he said.

Haunt is one of eight members of the Agile Rascal Bicycle Touring Theatre, which will kick off its 10-stop tour with a performance in Great Falls on Friday, make a big loop through Montana and return to Great Falls for a final show on Aug. 11. (See below for a complete schedule.)

They will be performing a play they have been creating from scratch and rehearsing for five weeks in the gymnasium of the Ursuline Centre, a former Catholic school in Great Falls that now houses a preschool and is available for conferences, retreats and other activities.

The Montana tour grew out of the theater company’s original adventure, a three-month, 16-city tour that went from San Francisco to New York City, with stops in Canada, in 2015. After taking a break in 2016, troupe founder Dara Silverman and a couple of veterans of the 2015 tour decided to revive the group to take on the Montana project.

Silverman said she conceived of the troupe as a “collision” of her two main passions, bicycling and theater, but when she tried to find something like that to take part in, she found nothing and realized she’d have to create it herself.

“Our mission,” it says on the Agile Rascal website, “is to incite creative thought, encourage community gathering, and invoke the power and joy of sustainable travel.”

To help carry all the troupe’s gear, two of the bicycles have extended frames. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

The troupe prepared for the new tour by reading about Montana and talking to Montanans, then brainstorming and improvising their way toward a play that says something about Montana from a historical perspective and as it exists today.

The play they came up with is set in the mythical Montana town of Resonance, the financial basis of which is a “sound mine” that was historically exploited for the various sounds, or “resonances,” produced there. With the mine nearing exhaustion, the townspeople come together to figure out how to sustain themselves in an uncertain future.

It is billed as a family-friendly production, complete with singing, live music and drumming, not to mention a talking bear. During rehearsals on Tuesday, the bear, played by John Paul Olsen, said talking animals were nothing too unusual; it’s just that people rarely listen to what they have to say.

One of several roles played by Haunt, the Billings native, is that of a bird—who happens to be on stilts and plays a saxophone. This clearly is a troupe that’s unafraid of whimsy.

Silverman, who lives in the Bay Area, said the coast-to-coast tour in 2015 was a lot of fun but they also learned a few things. One was that people in smaller towns are generally more welcoming and appreciative than people in bigger cities, which was mostly where the troupe performed in order to stay with family and friends of troupe members.

They decided to give Montana a try this time in order to take their play to smaller towns, and to create a site-specific play about one place. Another factor was that when the Agile Rascals played in New Mexico in 2015, a member of the audience was Cricket Butler, who happens to run the Whitefish Bike Retreat.

She and managing director Lelia Johnson, who is back for this summer’s tour, became friends, and Johnson later visited Whitefish. Montana just seemed like the right place.

As Jackie Rivera, a Florida native and one of the actors in the troupe, put it, Montana “is gorgeous. It’s sprawling. I’d never felt such space. And everyone’s so sweet and generous and interested.”

Designer Sarah Bell is the other Montanan on this year’s tour. She grew up in Big Fork and now lives in Kalispell, and she, too, knew Cricket Butler.

“I mentioned that I had a theater background and she said, ‘Wait, I’ve got some people you need to meet.’”

Bell has been working on costumes, sets and props, and like all members of the troupe, she is also acting in the play. One of the fun challenges of working on this production, she said, is that they have been forced to be creative with sets and props, using things like tent poles and bike parts to create what they need, since they can’t be carrying any extra weight.

Bell started bicycling a few years ago and is into mountain biking and road touring, but this will be her first major trip. She said her parents, who live in Big Fork, aren’t planning to see the show in Whitefish, planning instead to see it at one of the other towns and make a mini-vacation of it. Her sister is in Missoula and will catch the show there.

Haunt, a 2013 graduate of West High in Billings, said he has never been a serious bicyclist, either.

“I’m just a ride-to-the-park kind of guy,” he said. “Now I’m turning into a ride-across-Montana guy.”

Last winter, Haunt was finishing up his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, from which he graduated this spring with a degree in theater, when he heard about the Agile Rascal troupe from a theater acquaintance. It sounded like a tailor-made opportunity.

“I was just about to graduate and I needed something to do, and this brought me home,” he said.

The ride-to-the-park guy said the prospect of biking across 1,200 miles of his home state “is definitely intimidating, but it’s also so, so exciting.”

Olsen, the veteran of the 2015 tour who plays a talking bear in this year’s production, said he saw the original tour as an opportunity he couldn’t pass on, given his love for theater and bicycling. He’s also a good person to have on a tour like this, since he’s experienced at repairing and maintaining bicycles.

“It was something I always had greasy hands for,” he said.

Part of working their way through a play about Montana included taping bits of state history and other information to a sheet of paper hung on a wall of the Ursuline Centre gym. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

The 2015 tour was an unforgettable experience, he said: “It was pretty outrageous. It really felt like we were pioneers in contemporary performance.”

He’d been to Montana only once before this summer, on a cross-country car trip. Since coming to Great Falls, Olsen and other members of the troupe have been to a buffalo jump, the town of Belt, the Lewis and Clark National Forest and several museums and history centers. All those experiences, and the people they’ve met along the way, have influenced the shape of their improvisational play, he said.

Jaren Feeley, the troupe’s composer, keyboardist and banjo player, lives in Berkeley, Calif., where his main interests are bicycle touring, music and theater. So, yeah, this troupe was made for him, too.

He’s been using a regular electric keyboard during rehearsals, but on the road he’ll be packing a much smaller keyboard and a smallish amplifier. Both will be powered by generators mounted on bicycles. It was a little tricky working the bikes into the play—someone has to be pedaling when the music is being amplified—but they did it.

Like the 2015 tour, the Montana tour has been entirely supported through crowdfunding. Silverman said she used Kickstarter for the first tour, but this time tapped into Hatchfund, which was created specifically to develop support for artists.

Thanks to the crowdfunding, all shows will be free. Here is the schedule of shows around the state:

♦ June 30: Great Falls, 8 p.m., Ursuline Center.

♦ July 4: Havre, 5 p.m. Pepin Park.

♦ July 11: Lewistown, 7 p.m., Lewistown Public Library.

♦ July 15: Billings, 8 p.m., Moss Mansion lawn.

♦ July 20: Bozeman, 8 p.m., Story Mansion Park.

♦ July 23: Helena, 7 p.m., M.O.P. Shop.

♦ July 28: Missoula, 8 p.m., Free Cycles.

♦ Aug. 3: Eureka, 6:30 p.m., H.A. Brewing Company.

♦ Aug. 5: Whitefish, 7:30 p.m., Whitefish Bike Retreat.

♦ Aug. 11: Great Falls, 8 p.m., Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.