Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Wonders of the World: An Interview with the Missoula Oblongata

By Matt Dineen

You may not know it yet but the Pioneer Valley is home to a self-sufficient, experimental theater company. It’s called the Missoula Oblongata and it is run by Northampton residents Madeline Ffitch and Donna Sellinger. They proudly declare that their self-sufficiency means that, “the artists who write the scripts also perform, design, build, and light the play themselves.” I had a chance to speak with Madeline and Donna before they left for a nationwide summer tour with their new show, “The Most Mysterious Day of the Year,” a story revolving around a community boxing ring, the imminent demise of the Morse code, and a kaleidoscope convention.

Let’s start with the origin of your name and the route from Montana to Northampton where you’re now based.
Madeline: Well, Donna had been making theater on the East Coast for a long time, but I was living and going to school and writing in Montana. I really loved it there and when we decided to start collaborating, Donna moved there and we made our first show, “Wonders of the World: Recite” in Missoula, Montana.

Do you want to talk about that show?

Donna: Sure. I had just finished a tour that was from September through December [2005] and it ended in Idaho so I was able to move to Montana. We spent about three or four months building the show. We wrote it in about two or three weeks and then rehearsed it in a dark basement, just the two of us. And then we invited our friend Leo Gephardt to write the music and we had our friend Sarah Lowry, who is now the third member of the Missoula Oblongata, come up from Denver to direct it. And then we toured it all summer from May to August and then moved here and got a lot of invites and requests to come perform it again which we had not really anticipated. We did a January tour and some shows in February.

What brought you to Western Massachusetts?

M: We were really happy in Montana and we had a really wonderful community there. It’s a very regionally-specific area of the country where there are some true originals.

D: We miss it very much.

M: Yeah, we’re pretty homesick. But I got into grad school here in the MFA program at UMass for fiction writing. And so I decided to move here and since Donna’s family is from the Northeast it made sense for her to move back and for us to keep making theater based out of Northampton.

Donna, can you talk about what you’re doing in Northampton in addition to this theater group?

D: Actually, this theater group is all I do, and I’m very happy about that. It’s all I really want to do. It’s my ambition so I’m glad to just be living somewhere and having a life where I can spend all my time working on creating theater with my very favorite people and realizing all of our artistic dreams. It’s really fun.

So, has this been a balance for you, Madeline, being in this graduate program and doing the Missoula Oblongata? Has that been challenging for you in terms of time?
M: Well, I’m lucky because the program here is very supportive. So far, the faculty seems to just want and expect that you’ll be doing your own artistic work, and you have some pretty structured goals of your own and they try not to interfere. If they do have to interfere they’re usually pretty apologetic. They expect that you’ll spend most of your time working on your own things and for me that’s really true. Also, it’s all connected. Being in graduate school definitely gives me support, some time, and a little bit of extra money to be able to just work fulltime on creative work and that includes writing and also theater for me. So it’s pretty complimentary…Donna and I write together and the theater company is a fulltime job for us. We work on it everyday, sometimes all day and sometimes have to remind each other to have fun and go dancing, [laughs] and not just talk shop all the time. And actually this semester I’m doing an independent study which is making the new show. So I prioritize the Missoula Oblongata and I find a way to spend almost all of my time doing that.

D: There’s no part of what we do as a little theater company that is peripheral to any of us. We’ve really worked to simultaneously prioritize this and dedicate ourselves to it quite single-mindedly, to the point of pathology, and yet have our own lives where we can do other things.

You’ve mentioned this really great community in Missoula and I’m curious how this area has compared.

D: It’s a really interesting question because we spend a lot of our time here missing Missoula and wondering, “Is there even a niche for us here? What are we doing?” We’ve struggled a little bit to find a community here that we can feel really connected to and to make ourselves feel like an integral part in whatever scene is going on. But at the same time, the shows that we’ve had here were extremely well attended to the point of people having to leave because there wasn’t enough room. We’re really well received and it seems like people want more things to happen. All of the feedback that we’ve gotten from people in this community has been like, “Thank you for making things happen!” So that is a real blessing because though in Missoula we had a great time and people we’re really supportive of experimental performance, I would be lying if I said things were as well attended there. It seemed like people there were happy to have us and excited about it, but so far the reception here has been really warm.

M: Yeah, it was a little slow going at first, especially since I was the pioneer coming out here in September and Donna joined me in October. I really had just met people in my program, but now we’ve met other people in the community who we really admire as performers and seem to be doing some pretty experimental, interdisciplinary things. That’s exciting. So, I think it’s easy to move somewhere and just feel like, “Oh, there’s nothing going on. Remember how it used to be where we lived before?” But I think that just has to do with being on the periphery and then learning how to get involved, and find community and respect the groundwork that other people have been laying to create a scene. There’s some pretty amazing and gutsy experimental work going on here.

For more information and tour dates visit: http://www.themissoulaoblongata.com/

Matt Dineen is a writer and activist based in Northampton. Contact him at: passionsandsurvival@gmail.com