UM Sets Stage for Success of Lily Gladstone and Others

Theatrical productions are at the core of programming in UM’s School of Theatre and Dance. The cast for the recent production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” included 23 actors and a full team of over 78 students. (UM photos by Coral Scoles-Coburn)

MISSOULA – For faculty and students at the University of Montana’s School of Theatre and Dance, this year’s entertainment awards season is deeply personal.

One of their own, 2008 graduate Lily Gladstone, is nominated for an Academy Award for her role in “Killers of the Flower Moon” and has already won a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for her compelling performance.

For a school located hundreds of miles from major entertainment centers like Los Angeles and New York, this is particularly heady stuff. But the school has long had a reputation, far beyond the borders of Montana, for equipping students with skills necessary for career success in movies and theatrical productions.

“Professional practice is very much how we approach everything we do,” said Mike Post, an associate professor and interim director of the School of Theatre and Dance. “There is a great deal of theory that goes behind everything, but at the same time we are showing the application of that theory in a practical sense. And our productions are the culmination of those things.”

Photo of student operating a soundboard

Ellie Haag operates the sound board during a tech run for the play.

Housed in UM’s College of the Arts and Media, the school offers a diverse range of programming – both at the undergraduate and graduate level – in theater, dance, musical theater, theater education, and design and technology.

“Our students gain skills in acting, musical theater, movement and vocal production in our studios and then have the opportunity to brings those skills before a live audience in our theater season,” said Professor Bernadette Sweeney, head of acting and musical theatre.

“We typically do two mainstage theater or musical shows a semester.

“The school just closed “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” which showcased the actors' work with a classical text, live music and movement. It had a cast of 23 with a full team of over 78 students,” she added.

In addition to the school’s stage-focused works, programs from CAM’s School of Visual and Media Arts provide students with a creative dovetail into film and sound design.

“A lot of schools have robust programming, but very few connect theater, dance and media arts,” said Michael Murphy, a professor in the College of Visual and Media Arts who teaches digital film making. “It’s this interdisciplinary package that makes our program unique.”

So too is the proximity to a resident professional theater, the Montana Repertory Theatre. Only a small number of colleges – most with larger programs than UM – boast a professional theater as part of their programming, said Michael Legg, artistic director of the Montana Repertory Theatre and an associate professor of theater.   

“Our philosophy and responsibility are to make sure students get as many professional experiences as they can before they go out into world,” Legg said. “So we run our rehearsal process in the same way students will encounter in the world. We bring in a whole host of artists who have careers and students work alongside those professionals and learn from them and make connections.”

Hudson Therriault, a 2019 Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate from Missoula, worked extensively with the Rep while a student, going on tours and performing on stage and as a crew member. Therriault said the exposure to the broad concepts of theater was a “beautiful thing.”

Photo of actor putting on stage makeup

Jayden Dupler applies makeup for the cast’s final dress rehearsal.

Today, he works as a professional in Chicago, auditioning for plays while making a living assisting theatrical productions to improve accessibility for blind and vision-impaired audience members. He’s provided narrative descriptions of onstage performances for several Broadway shows, the New York City Ballet and productions as diverse as “Hamilton” and “Lion King.”

“It’s really crazy how often at work I use the language I picked up in class,” Therriault said. “Without the specialized skills and training I got at the school, I would not have the confidence to objectively provide a narrative for listeners while broadening their experience.” 

Actor Aaron Bartz, who graduated the same year as Gladstone, credits his introduction to the Rep’s traveling productions while a high school student in Great Falls for convincing him to study acting at UM. With credits that include appearing in “The Good Wife” and on Broadway, Bartz said the depth of programming at the school provides a graduate level of training to every student.

 “The physical acting classes, the stage combat classes, stage makeup, dance,” he said. “Everyone is welcome and encouraged to take as deep a dive as possible and really get after it.

“I’d love to come back and do another production with the Rep,” added Bartz, who now lives in Connecticut.

Playwright, actor and school alumna Kendra Mylnechuk Potter points to tight bonds that formed among her fellow students for fostering her career success. The Rep recently hosted a staged reading for her latest play, “Can’t Drink Salt Water.” 

“Easily for 90% of my career, I’ve been one or two degrees from relationships I made at the Rep while a student,” she said. “Wherever I go – New York to Los Angeles – actors and directors I met while a student at UM have fed me, literally, supported me and became a part of my extended family.”

This camaraderie is just one of the many advantages to learning theater and dance in a smaller and more intimate school setting, said Mike Monsos, a UM professor of scenic design and technology.

“Bigger schools tend to focus on graduate students,” he said. “Here, from day one, our students are involved in the shops, theater production, front of the house work. Almost immediately we are setting them up for success.”

While still early in her academic studies, sophomore Kairi Lising has landed parts in a number of the school productions, including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She also participated in a stage reading for the Rep her freshman year, getting paid a $50 scholarship award.

Student building set furniture

Dillon Deschamps measures a prop for the play. (UM photo by Ella Palulis)

“I guess you could say that makes me a professional already,” Lising said. “Seriously, though, everyone is so accepting and helpful. I can see myself improving, and I only expect to get better as my studies go along.”

Because acting and dance are such demanding professions with admittedly high attrition rates, the school gives each student the necessary tools to start their professional career on a sound footing. That includes assembling compelling resumes and headshots, practicing for auditions and developing a career plan with long-term goals.

Sweeney stressed that while the school is very much focused on professional training, students minoring in theater and dance – while studying for majors in other fields – are also vital to the vibrancy of their programming. She jokes that they’d heartedly welcome a “singing accountant anytime.”

“Students who minor in theater, dance and musical theater often had a great high school experience, and they want to keep performing on some level as they move on to their career,” she said.

There is much, she adds, that students can take with them even if they never step on stage again.

“The training students get here is very transferable. Skills like time management, project management, presenting to the public,” she said. “Our students know how to be prepared and to do their research. Many times, they find success in adjacent career paths.”


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659,