CORRECTION: An earlier version of this web post mis-identified a student, that photo has been removed, he correct photo is below.
The beautiful Gothic Revival auditorium at Great Falls High School, built in 1930, has huge, high ceilings, a balcony and 1,200 seats facing a broad proscenium stage. On a recent visit here, like on many winter evenings in high schools across Montana, students are rehearsing for an upcoming play.
But these 15 students from all three of Great Falls' high schools aren’t rehearsing one of the old standards like Our Town or Little Shop of Horrors, it’s an original play, written and directed by Sarah Butts, who has degrees from Carroll College and now lives in Seattle.
"The goal with this project was really to illuminate a lot of the struggles that a lot of young people especially are dealing with in Great Falls," says Butts.
"She was saying that there's a large disconnect in the community of Great Falls where, if you aren't regularly interfacing with youth especially, you may not be aware of the kinds of struggles or the intensity of the kinds of struggles that a lot of young people are dealing with on a regular basis."
Sarah thought she could do something about that. So, last September, she came to Great Falls for a week, and spent more than 50 hours interviewing students, teachers, administrators, parents and people in law enforcement.
"There's one story that's in the play about a family that's living in their car," Butts said, "and I was really shocked to learn that that is not that rare actually, that there's a lot of families in the city of Great Falls that are living in their cars. Or living in a hotel room."
Butts turned her interviews into the script the high school student actors will perform Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights in the Great Falls High auditorium.
"There's some heavy material in there," says sixteen-year-old junior Taniya Reovan, who's in the production.
"We hear monologues portrayed from rape victims, suicide survivors, mental disorders. We have one piece, in particular, that's about the LBGTQ community."
Reovan says she and the other students in the play were drawn to it because reflects the intense, real experiences of people they know.
Senior Dylan Hanning, who also acts in Converge, says it’s an opportunity for Great Falls audiences to engage on the things that really concern people here, but that they have trouble talking about.
"Here in Montana we kind, like, have this, ‘I have to be strong’ mentality,'" Hanning said. "And it's not really a good thing because there are a lot of social issues that just go not looked at in this community. And I think that this play is really going to help open some members of our community's eyes on and make it easier to talk about Not an easier subject, but make it less taboo to talk about."
The play has some dialog between actors, but a lot of it is students delivering monologues of the words writer and director Sarah Butts gathered in her interviews, in a format that she calls a collage.
But both Butts and the students in the play insist that, in spite of dealing with very serious subject matter, Converge is not just a downer.
"Although we talked about a lot of the harder subjects that are in here, there's many pieces in this that are also very happy and uplifting," says Reovan "It tells about how at the juvenile detention center how they hold graduations for the students, and they have all this food, and in the beginning there's a there's a monologue about the homeless people, and it tells about how the schools do all these great things for homeless people. So it really shows all of the great things that are being done about these issues, so it's not it's not just all heavy. Even though there's some heavy subjects, it also gives light to the situation."
Sarah Butts says she understands that some people look to the theatre as a place to escape and that she enjoys doing lighter fare more focused on entertainment. But she says productions like Converge, which she calls “community responsive” work, can have a lot of impact.
"Theater is one of those rare spaces that we have left where we all choose to come together and sit together as a community and turn the lights off and unplug from all of our devices and just sit back and listen to someone's story," Butts says.
"I went to a production at San Francisco Playhouse a couple of years ago and they used this term that I thought was really powerful. They said that they thought the theater was an 'empathy gym,' where because you're sitting and listening to these stories, and you're not listening to respond, you're just listening and watching someone's story unfold, I think it leads to a lot of empathy."
Converge: E Pluribus Unum, opens Wednesday night at Great Falls High School, with performances Thursday and Friday as well. Showtime is 7 p.m., and admission is free. Butts says there will be a chance for talkback with the audience after each performance. There’s also a film being made about how the stories in the show came together.