MISSOULA, Montana (Missoulian) — A creative writing program that bring writers into schools on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
A play about the experiences of military veterans that will tour the state of Montana.
Those are two projects by Missoula-based organizations that received funding through National Endowment for the Arts grants announced recently.
The Missoula Writing Collaborative got $30,000 for “Young Voices of the Mission Mountains,” a series of creative writing residencies in which seven schools will host writers to work with students in fourth through sixth grade on projects inspired by Indigenous artists.
The Montana Repertory Theatre, a professional theater in residence at the University of Montana, received $10,000 for “ReEntry,” which will tour in 2022. The show, based on Marines’ experiences, will head to cities around Montana with post-play talks for veterans.
Four groups outside Missoula also were selected for grants. In Billings, the Alberta Bair Theater received $20,000. In Bozeman, the Intermoutain Opera $10,000 and Mountain Time Arts $20,000; and in Helena, the Myrna Loy received $10,000.
The nonprofit writing collaborative has been bringing writers into some of the Flathead schools for at least 15 years, said executive director Caroline Patterson.
“This wouldn’t be happening without the funding,” she said. They’ve been able incrementally receive a larger grants each round and expand accordingly over the course of six years.
“Over the years, we’ve been able to expand and really develop this program,” she said.
The grant will help pay for 12-week residencies in seven schools on the reservation, including Arlee, Charlo, Dixon, K. William Harvey in Ronan, St. Ignatius and Pablo, in the spring and fall.
Some of them are just starting now and others will be in the fall. Some are in person and some are virtual, depending on the school.
“We have a pretty rich curriculum of Montana Indigenous writers that the students are also using in the poetry classes,” she said.
Writers will teach the kids about free verse and form poetry using writing prompts and videos from writers Heather Cahoon (Pend d’Oreille), Jennifer Finley (Salish/Chippewa-Cree) and Vic Charlo (Bitterroot Salish).
A new feature is ekphrastic art — an art project made in response to an existing piece of art.
In this case, the inspirational pieces are by painters Corwin “Corky” Clairmont and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, both whom are Salish.
In the past two years, they’ve created a ledger art and poetry with translator Aspen Decker.
“She’ll tell coyote stories and speak to the kids in Salish, and then they make up their own creation stories in poetry and do ledger art drawings,” she said.
“How wonderful it has been for our teachers to work on the reservation and the teachers on the reservation have been such great partners, but also our writers have been so instrumental in getting this program to work,” she said. She listed some of their well-known teachers like Nick Littman, Caroline Keys, Emily Freeman, and new member Chris La Tray.
The Montana Rep had originally scheduled “ReEntry” for 2021 but it’s been postponed due to COVID-19 with optimistic hopes that audiences will be ready to return to theaters by next year.
This is the first NEA grant that the Rep has received, and artistic director Michael Legg hopes they’re accepted again “because of our new mission to focus on stories about Montana and the people who live here — we’re just a natural fit.”
When Legg was hired in 2018, the Rep reconfigured its template from a national tour to that Montana-centric program.
The Rep picked “ReEntry” as a touring play because the state has one of the highest percentage of veterans in the U.S. It’s billed as “an unflinching look at the lives of Marines getting ready for and returning from combat.” Playwrights Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez wrote their script based on several years’ worth of interviews with Marines about their experiences.
While it’s too early to confirm many specifics on the tour, they plan to stop in cities and towns around the state and look at new venues, including Great Falls and neighboring Malmstrom Air Force Base, and communities near Veterans Administration hospitals and other veterans’ groups.
“We’ve been talking to the UM veterans’ group that is on board and helping us out,” he said.
Besides the play itself, they want to host post-show conversations and invite veterans, veterans groups and medical professionals to take part.
“No matter where we are in the state, we would invite folks to come and join us after the show, so the people in the audience can talk about the experience of the play, talk about their own experiences,” he said.
The grant is an “affirming” piece of national recognition as they look to start raising more money for the tour.
“It helps us feel like we’re on the right path with some of the changes in programming that we’ve made,” he said.
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