A happy homecoming: playwright returns to see work performed

Playwright Jay Kettering talks with the crowd Sunday afternoon following the Montana Repertory Theatre production of his play, “Raised in the Saddle: The Phantasmagorical Journey of a Future Rodeo Queen.”  

Photo by Charlie Denison

By: 
Charlie Denison
Reporter

Lewistown native Jay Kettering had a different kind of homecoming this weekend.

Instead of going to the game (which Fergus won), Jay was in town for the Montana Repertory Theatre Education Outreach production of “Raised in the Saddle: the Phantasmagorical Journey of a Future Rodeo Queen,” a historical comedy he wrote.

Montana Repertory Theatre comes to town every year, and sometimes the production they bring is a Kettering original. Jay was happy to return for the performances, which took place Sunday at the Lewistown Public Library and Monday at the Lewistown Junior High School.

“I haven’t been in here since the seventies,” Jay said of the junior high. “Back when our team was the Beavers.”

Son of Florence and Charles Kettering, Jay grew up in Worden and Lewistown but now resides in Missoula. He enjoyed his upbringing and looks up to both parents, who were both support of his passion for the arts. His father, who passed in 2013, was a teacher and coach; his mother, who still resides in Lewistown, is a former Lewistown Public Library director.

This being the case, it was icing on the cake to have the library host Jay’s production.

A large crowd turned out for the event.

“We knew it’d be packed if Jay was coming to town,” said KellyAnne Terry, current Library Director.

“Raised in the Saddle” is a 55-minute fictional portrayal of Alice Greenough’s trip to Forsyth in 1919 to compete in her first rodeo. It ends up being a pretty wild ride, as 17-year-old Greenough (Elizabeth Bennett) runs into all kinds of characters from Montana’s past: Charlie Russell, a young Gary Cooper, first Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, “Copper King” William Clark and more.

Nathan Snow played nearly every role, from the ticket taker to the fortuneteller.

“There were times I started putting on a costume for the wrong character, but fortunately I never made it on stage wearing the wrong costume,” Snow joked after the show.

Snow obviously has many moments in “Raised in the Saddle,” but it’s clear from the get-go the show centers around Greenough.who is trying to find her way both literally and figuratively.

Having Greenough be the hero of “Raised in the Saddle” happened in a roundabout way.

“My wife was editing a book called ‘Bold Women in Montana History’ and, in that book, Alice Greenough and her family were featured,” Jay said. “I was looking for a teenage protagonist and she really did have her first rodeo at the age of 17 in Forsyth, Montana, so that kind of set the wheels in motion.”

Jay said he picked the characters carefully.

“Everyone in the play is at a different age, but it was at least plausible they could’ve run into each other on a train in 1919,” Jay said. “[Cooper] was about 19 at the time and Rankin was just finishing her first term in Congress. I wanted Evel Knievel to make an appearance on the train, but it wasn’t the right era.”

Jay did, however, incorporate some Butte history. A “powder monkey” named Shamus O’Leary (also played by Snow) makes a haunting cameo during the play. He talks with Greenough about life in the mine, and he also talks with her about courage.

The characters Jay chose help share Montana history and help tell the story of a woman coming of age. Greenough gains character and strength through the ride, learns about the trials facing the state and nation and even saves the day after coming face-to-face with a train-robbing outlaw (which was actually a puppet).

William Clark was also a puppet, which brought great laughs from the crowd, especially when he got into a heated political debate with Rankin.

“I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale,” the puppet said.

Jay said he couldn’t be more pleased by the final production. He couldn’t say enough about the actors, stage manager Cahillane Shine (puppets, sound and more) and scenic designer Karl Mitchell, who was instrumental in making the set look train-like and having some fun backdrops come and go through the windows.

“That’s the great thing about doing theater,” Jay said. “Everything you do gets strengthened by the other people. Whatever you start with becomes stronger because of the collaboration.”

Seeing one of his plays performed is an amazing feeling, Jay said, because the production is much greater than what he ever imagined.

“It might say the play is by Jay Kettering, but, really, everybody plays a part,” he said. “I’m very lucky to work with such talented people.”

Having an opportunity to share his craft in his hometown is fitting, Jay said. After all, Central Montana is where his inspiration comes from, thanks largely to a workshop assignment he was given years ago, asking him to write dialogue about how his parents met.

“I had a built-in story that was sitting there that I’d never done anything with,” Jay said. “My mom is from Winifred – that’s where her family homesteaded – and my dad got his first coaching and teaching job Winifred after graduating from UCLA. My mom was a deadeye .22-rifle shooter but had a bad habit of leaving the rifle butt against her foot. Her dad would say ‘one of these days you’re going to shoot your toe off.’”

Then she did.

“They wrapped her toe up and went to the high school thinking the coach would have some bandages, and that’s where they met,” Jay said. “He started visiting her in the hospital, and the rest is history.”

Jay wrote the short play, and it sparked something in him.

“I just fell in love with the art,” he said.

 

 

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