Summer in Bozeman: How an OSU theatre professor is impacting rural arts engagement
Wednesday, March 15, 2023
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In the summer of 2022, Eric Barker, an Oklahoma State University assistant professor of scenic design, found himself with a Research Jumpstart/Accelerator Grant (RJAG) but nowhere to spend it; his original plans to work with the Richmond Shakespeare festival in Richmond, Indiana, had fallen through.
The RJAG grant is designed to aid faculty in getting their research up and running following the COVID-19 pandemic. Barker knew he needed to find another research project and did just that, landing the chance to work with Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (MSIP) in Bozeman, Montana.
“I had never been to Montana, let alone lived there for six weeks, so this was going to be a new experience for me,” Barker said. “After I watched a PBS documentary about Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, I was sold on this incredible opportunity and could not wait to be a part of this team.”
Barker was brought on as the properties — or props — designer, meaning he oversaw the various materials that the actors carried and utilized on stage. That included all of the furniture and set dressings, like curtains, books and photos.
With productions of Twelfth Night, set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, and King Lear, set in 1890s Butte, Montana, Barker had his hands full with research. He needed to fully immerse himself in the time periods to get a vision for how each prop would fit with each play’s time period.
“Learning the details that surrounded the exact time and location was paramount in order to design the correct period prop for each production,” Barker said. “I was responsible for designing and building anything from a throne to New Orleans funeral umbrellas.”
Adam Kukic, MSIP production manager, added that in addition to the play's historical contexts, Barker also had to consider the durability of the props. The items would be used in every production, all summer long.
“From shackles for a prisoner to a fake Bloody Mary for a party reveler, all items must not only ‘fit’ in the world of the play, but must be safe and able to withstand nearly three -months of outdoor performances while out on tour,” Kukic said.
After opening night on Montana State University’s campus, the 11-person crew packed up the costumes, scenery and props to take the show on a 70-day tour. MSIP visited more than 60 communities and put on more than 77 performances during the summer 2022 season.
“MSIP is a unique Shakespeare company in that they tour their productions,” Barker said. “Most summer Shakespeare festivals remain in the same location after the show opens and the audience travels to see the show. MSIP focuses on the opportunity to bring productions to rural communities that otherwise might not have exposure to this type of art.”
Barker will return to Bozeman this summer to continue his work with the organization. With productions of The Three Musketeers and Measure for Measure on the schedule, he will once again find himself immersed in history and impacting thousands along the tour route.
“Eric brings much to our creative process,” said Kevin Asselin, MSIP artistic director. "He is insightful, resourceful and is able to bring the highest level of professionalism to our mission. We are thrilled to know that he’ll be back with us this summer as we embark upon our 51st season of underserved rural engagement.”
To learn more about Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, visit their website.
Story By: Erin Milek, CAS Communications Coordinator | firstname.lastname@example.org