Monday, June 7, 2010

Big Sky State, Small Intense Actress: A Profile of Montana von Fliss

At 5’4”, Montana von Fliss—blonde and pretty but with some surprising muscularity—packs a disproportionate amount of power into a compact frame. In this season’s WET production of Hunter Gatherers, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s new play about survival of the fittest among a quartet of 30-something friends, she literally went toe-to-toe, via some elaborately choreographed fight scenes, with fellow actors Patrick Allcorn and Hannah Franklin, each of whom is a six-foot-something. She more than held her own.

I was first introduced to Montana by Artis the Spoonman at a late-night cabaret years ago, and it turns out that’s no surprise: she’s spent a good portion of her life on the neo-Vaudevillian circuit. When she was 12, the house she and her mother had been staying in burned down, and the friend that they moved in with belonged to a performing troupe. “I just started going to rehearsals,” she recalls. “Pretty soon I was performing at places like the Pike Place Market and Bumbershoot and Folklife. I’ve been a part of that group ever since, singing dancing, skits, acrobatic stuff.” This same group of musicians and performers, neo-Vaudevillians and acrobats run the annual Moisture Festival now.

The eclectic training suited her. “I just wanted to do it all, right? I’d get up on the trapeze, get in tap shoes and be in the chorus line, play flute in the band, juggle, whatever they would let me do. But acting was the thing that really stuck. It was my favorite part.”

Before she went on the UW’s Professional Acting Training Program, she worked at “a lot of fringe companies, Annex and some companies that no longer exist. I would self- produce stuff in the Fringe Festival. Not much professional work, some stuff at Taproot.” Since graduating from PATP in 2008, she’s been in a couple of shows at Equity houses in town—The Three Musketeers at The Rep, Rock and Roll at ACT, and understudying for their Christmas Carol.

Since then there have been “numerous corporate training videos and Microsoft videos that I’m proud of,” she says, with a cheery voice that might be sarcasm—von Fliss is very good at cheerful sarcasm. But she’s sincere about the excitement of working at the big theatres. “I went to those theatres as a kid. Seeing shows on those stages while on school trips, that was what I aspired to as an actor. It’s a huge note in my tiny book that I’ve acted on some of those stages.”

I asked her about how she’d gotten involved with WET. “I was asked to audition for their first production, Laura’s Bush, and I wasn’t available. I was actually heading off on a cross-country road trip right after my Dad died. Then when I went back to school at the UW, I wasn’t able to be a member. So I was a fan for the first four years, and saw practically everything they did. After school when I decided to stay in Seattle, I realized this was my favorite company in town. If I had the opportunity to make work, this is where it should be. So I asked, and they invited me to join.”

As a company, WET slammed onto the scene in 2004 with productions that began winning critical acclaim practically from the moment they opened their doors. Founded by a group of ambitious young UW grads, they took original works and unconventional scripts and created the sort of theatre that fringe is reputed to be but seldom is: experimental, risk-taking, defiantly physical and subversively funny. But after a couple of years, company members began drifting off, the company’s critical reputation took a hit, and its audiences drifted to even newer companies like Balagan and Satori. (The problem with being Young Turks is that eventually you aren’t so young anymore.) I asked Von Fliss if she felt that “WET 2.0” is back to being philosophically and artistically sound.

“I do,” she answered firmly. “And it’s not back to being something great, it’s gone forward. I was always a fan of this company, and loved all of their productions. When I saw Crave [Sarah Kane’s harrowing play, produced by WET in 2005], I thought ‘this is what I need to be doing.’ But we’re not that group any more. In this kind of organization turnover is natural and positive. Even though I wanted to be a member of that company as it was, we’re coming to a new high point artistically.”

It’s clear that von Fliss has a big crush on WET, so we discussed what elements of the company had drawn her to working with them. “There’s the complete open courage. I remember thinking they were so brave. And I was really attracted to this idea of highly collaborative theatre. Everyone in the room has a voice. An actor might have an idea about lighting, and a lighting designer might contribute something like a directorial concept without a feeling of transgression. As I got to know them I realized that it may move slower and it’s not perfect, but having the openness of everyone’s creative input can make some amazing stuff. What you see on stage isn’t just the director’s vision; it’s the company’s vision.”

Von Fliss says that her great challenge with Hunter Gatherers was that the character of Pam was so tremendously different from herself, particularly in her passivity. “It’s easily one of the toughest roles I’ve ever played. I hope I’m a nice person but I’m not a Pam. She’s optimist where I’m pessimistic, she’s earnest where I’m sarcastic. One thing I focused on was Pam’s priorities. It’s more important to her that other people are happy and that things go well than anything else. Creating that as her strongest desire is really helpful. It results in a list of responses and expectations and reactions that made it seem plausible to me.”

Surprisingly, the fact that she had to spend the last 20 minutes of the show in her underwear wasn’t a challenge. “I’m not particularly modest in that way,” she laughs. “I thought of it as Pam’s superhero underwear. If she was a superhero outfit, this would be it. It’s more of a costume than vulnerability.”

Given all that Hunter Gatherers asked from its actors—the script mixes up comedy, drama, slapstick and stage fighting, I asked her where her comfort level was, and she had to mull that a bit before she answered. “Comedy. I like the structure of a joke—where does the funny live?” And that’s an easy segue into talking about her next project, which takes on the comedy question full-on. “It’s a solo show that I’ve written called Cancer: the Musical. It’s based on the true story of my Dad getting cancer, quitting my job to take care of him, and his subsequent death and what followed.” She says that the result is a show that deliberately mixes genres and tones. “Sometimes it feels like being in a lab trying to measure loss, Sometimes it feels like a musical. But there’s a lot of comedy. My family’s first response to anything is a joke.”

“This show is really an attempt to show that we really don’t have a lot of time here,” she continues, “and if you haven’t experienced something like this, you will, so seize the day. If your Mom always wanted to go to Paris take her now, because she won’t always be around. And at the same time it’s for people who are trying to navigate the awful map of grief. It is possible to get through it and laugh about it.”

Finally I ask if WET has become for von Fliss what so many artists want from a theatre company: a home. “Having been here for almost two years now—it does feel like home,” she reflects. “It feels a lot like the place I’m actually living, my apartment. It is absolutely perfect for right now. Since watching the closest person in the world to me die, I’ve just gotten out of the habit of planning too far ahead. I work at being in the moment every day, being here, now. I am actively practicing very hard.”

For more info on "Cancer: The Musical!" playing now at WET, go to:

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