Ten actors dressed in neutral colors, tall boots and masks that made their faces look like dogs stood scattered across the stage inside the Masquer Theatre. They wore no microphones. No recorded sounds or music played, but their words filled the space as they talked, cried and even howled.
These actors are part of the University of Montana School of Theatre and Dance’s new play “The Call of the Wild.” The play is based on the adventure novel by Jack London, which tells the story of the dog, Buck, who is abducted from his home in California and taken to Yukon, Canada, where he eventually becomes a sled dog. In 2017, Ian Frank adapted the story into a play, which makes it a “baby play in the theater world,” according to the Director, Michael Beverley.
The 10 actors play multiple parts, except for Elise Clayton, who plays Buck. Others play as many as four parts, including narrators, humans and other dogs that Buck gets to know along his journey.
“We as narrators inhabit these living, breathing characters through the masks we wear,” said actor Austin Mowat. “I guess I just love making up and inhabiting these larger than life characters.”
Mowat, 23, is a theatre major with a concentration in acting. Originally from Victor, Montana, this show is a part of his final semester at UM before graduating in December. One of Mowat’s characters is John Thornton, one of the few human characters in the play.
For many involved, this was their first show since the COVID-19 pandemic began. For Beverley, this was the first production he directed since 2020. He was assigned to direct this play by a selection committee of faculty and students. Directing “The Call of the Wild” is a part of his program to receive a Masters of Fine Arts in theatre with an emphasis in directing.
Beverley, 28, never read “The Call of the Wild’’ while growing up in Denton, Maryland, so he wasn’t sure what to expect when he got the assignment.
“The first thing that drew me into the script was that it starts with the ensemble saying to the audience that we’re telling you a story,” Beverley said. “It’s a play that’s aware it’s a play.”
He saw the story as an opportunity to bring back what so many missed during the pandemic: a connection between actors and audience. One thing the design team focused on was creating a set that fostered connection.
“I want to make it really clear that the audience is sitting inside the show,” Beverley said.
Scenic Designer Ashley Milleson had the idea of extending the set into the risers where the audience sits. There is a small portion of the set in all four sections of seating. These sections hold props and, have stands to create “shrines” for the dog masks.
“The Call of the Wild” has scenes throughout where the dogs pull a sled. To portray that, the actors are connected in a circle, and move to show the rhythm in which they are working together.
When imagining the show, Beverley said he didn’t want anybody pulling the sled around.
“From day one, I said, we are not going to crawl on our hands and knees and bark like a dog,” he said.
Creating the sledding movements took about six hours. These movements had elements of dance in them. Beverley, with no dance experience, was happy to have actor Natalie Renk help brainstorm movements that felt natural to the story. Renk, 19, is a sophomore from Helena, majoring in theatre education and English teaching.
“One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to physicalize the dogs so they read as dogs,” Renk said. “I did this by approaching my character as a human, and then layering on dog mannerisms that fit into the character that I built.”
Sound is another element that took hours to create. Beverley wanted real, non-recorded sounds to fill the space and make the audience feel more immersed in the story. To create the illusion of a train in one scene, the actors had to study old steam engine videos to break down the different sounds. Creating this sound, which only happens for a few minutes, took hours of collaboration.
While the play was chosen by a committee in the fall of 2021, the cast only had four weeks to rehearse before opening night on Nov. 10. This amount of time is shorter than the rehearsal time for most musicals. The cast had to rehearse in the Schreiber Gym, which was half the space of the theater.
“I’ve never felt closer to a cast than I have with the amazing people I have the pleasure of telling this story with,” said 19-year-old actor David Miller, a sophomore acting major from Great Falls.
“We all rely heavily on each other to create the most magical and meaningful experience we can for the audience,” Miller said.
“The Call of the Wild” will have its final shows Nov. 17-20. It is located in the Masquer Theatre, inside the PARTV Center on campus. Patrons with a UM Griz Card (students/faculty/staff) or high-school ID can get two tickets for $5.50 each (plus GrizTix fees).