Goosebumps at the Playmill


An Adventure in Mormon Theater in West Yellowstone

The houselights fall; the last few coughs and whispers fade; and a girl comes on stage. Under a soft spotlight her face is beautiful, its innocence incongruous in the gaudy, western saloon. As she feels her way from table to table, her eyes wandering blankly across the painted bar and rows of painted bottles on the canvas backdrop, the audience realizes that she is blind.

“Is there no one here?” she asks timidly, to be answered only by silence. “Will no one help me?” she says a little louder, her voice quavering on the edge of a sob. There is no reply from the empty saloon. She sits down unsteadily in a chair, her face inexpressibly weary, her shoulders drooping. “Will no one help me?” she whispers hopelessly. Her vacant eyes pass once over the audience as if yearning to penetrate the darkness, and then with a small sigh she bows her head and seems to give up.

Suddenly, a few rows back, a man springs to his feet. He struggles free from the row of knees and backrests and is quickly on the stage. Drawing up a chair to face the actress, he takes her two small, trembling hands in his two large, strong ones. “I’ll help you, dear,” he says softly.

His words produce instant pandemonium. The audience surges to its feet, sending wave after wave of cheers and applause crashing against the tiny stage, and for several long minutes the melodrama waits; the stage crew waits; the actors backstage awaiting their cues wait; the whole little theater world waits while men and women and children are happy out loud.

It wasn’t exactly a theatrical triumph; there was no such line in the script; the man wasn’t a cast member; no one was more surprised than the “blind girl” at the unexpected offer of assistance. The incident, which really happened, wasn’t so much theater as it was a peculiar form of magic, and it took place, as that sort of magic often does, at a little theater in West Yellowstone, Montana, known as the Playmill.

It began in 1963 when four Ricks College professors decided to establish a summer theater where young LDS actors could get acting experience free from the worldly atmosphere that often surrounds summer theater.

The result, more than ten years later, is a board and batten building topped by a dutch period windmill and flanked on one side by tall pines. And what happens inside that little green building is even better than what they hoped for; the infusion of gospel principles into a theater setting has produced a unique spirit of brotherhood and unity between actors and audience—the kind of unity portrayed between the blind girl and her volunteer hero from the audience.

Today Brother Lynn Benson of Rexburg, Idaho, is the sole owner, producer, and director, and he feels and acts more as a father to the group than as a teacher or boss. “You always want to do your best for Brother Benson,” one young actress comments, “because you know how much it means to him, and you wouldn’t let him down for the world.”

Each spring he holds auditions to select his troupe for the following summer. The approximately 15 players are often selected from as many as 80 applicants. They receive ten hours of college credit for the summer’s work, but all agree that the credit is much less important than the growth they experience.

“The players are not selected solely on the basis of talent, although that means a lot,” says Brother Benson. “They must also have a certain drive and enthusiasm, a certain spirit, and, of course, they must be willing to live the standards of the Church.”

West Yellowstone is a typical tourist town—a stopping place for arriving and departing visitors to Yellowstone Park—replete with curio shops, motels, restaurants, and, everywhere, split-log rusticity. When the players arrive in the middle of May the town is only beginning to realize the summer. There is snow on the ground, temperatures dip well below freezing each night, and shop proprietors are still finishing up paint jobs and storing the last of the shutters and storm windows.

As soon as the actors are installed in their cabins near the edge of town they go to work preparing three different shows—usually two musicals and a melodrama—in time for the tourist boom in July and August. They begin in June with one production on stage and another in rehearsal and then progress to two alternating productions on stage and a third in rehearsal. During this period the actors put in six hours of rehearsal every day in addition to the production each evening.

By midsummer all three shows are on the boards, and the pace slows somewhat. Then instead of constant rehearsal, there’s time for acting classes three days a week, and three days a week the players are free to do as they please until showtime. They use a lot of those free mornings to make friends with nature, traveling into the park, hiking, picnicking, and swimming in the Firehole, a river with a deep swimming hole (complete with Tarzan rope) at the base of a chain of rapids.

In most theaters the actors and the audience keep the footlights and the orchestra pit safely between them, contacting each other only professionally and only between the opening and closing curtains. The Playmill crew rejects this businesslike approach. “The audience is the show,” comments one player; “They’re the funnest part.” The players make a real effort to get to know their customers on a personal basis, broadening theater into a two-way process.

Every Monday through Saturday at 6:00 P.M. the group meets at the theater in costume (girls in gingham gowns, guys in candy-striped jackets). After a prayer for protection and guidance they pile into the back of a barely-together pickup and take theater to the people. Following a preplanned route around West Yellowstone, the group stops at restaurants and motels, singing, dancing, passing out flyers, and just plain talking to people and making friends.

“Remember, that’s 8:30 at the Playmill!” is the familiar refrain, as the Mormon minstrels clamber back into the pickup and rattle off toward the next stop. As their singing drifts into curio shops and service stations, a line of people forms along the sidewalk, singing along, stomping their feet, and applauding. The whole street becomes one huge stage, big enough for both actors and audience.

When customers arrive at the Playmill they find the personal touch once again. Actors take their tickets, and actors escort them to their seats, all with an arm-in-arm amiability that’s rare anywhere but particularly in a tourist town.

As soon as you walk in the door someone is on stage presenting a spirited solo performance. When almost everyone is seated there’s a short sing-along to get the audience moving together, and then comes a good old-fashioned vaudeville show, with the traditional songs, soft shoe, and blackout skits.

After the vaudeville show comes intermission, and the players become refreshment vendors with an enthusiasm that makes it the favorite part of the show for some spectators. The actors ham it up, exhorting, inspiring, begging, and cajoling the group to buy. A player appears in one aisle hawking soft drinks. “Pop!” he booms. Another appears in the opposite aisle with popcorn. “Corn!” she squeaks, hitchhiking on the first call. “Pop—Corn!” “Pop—Corn!” No matter how fast pop yells, corn is right behind him, stealing his thunder. Then, as likely as not, a young man in top hat and tails will come sauntering down an aisle holding a wooden “tree” bristling with suckers. A sarcastic gleam comes into his eye as he appraises the audience carefully. “SUCK—ERS!” he sneers. Then follows a hilarious demonstration of “hard sell” as he gives them a thousand reasons why the only truly happy man is the man with a sucker in his mouth. The process is so successful that patrons have even been known to buy the sucker tree when all the suckers were gone.

If the evening’s fare is a melodrama, there is then a boo school in which melodrama novices are taught how to boo the villain and cheer the hero with proper gusto.

By the time the curtain goes up on the production, the audience is alive; they know the actors, and they like them. They are in the mood to have a good time and they do.

The productions are excellent, honed by long hours of rehearsal. “We feel we’re the best amateur group there is,” one Playmiller says simply. But there’s more to it than just technical excellence. The players really care about the audience, and they feel a real responsibility to them. For an hour or so they want to lift people’s burdens and give them a feeling of that joy and enthusiasm and happiness that are a legacy of the gospel.

Julie Ann Johnson says, “Each time before we went out on the street or before a performance, we always said a prayer, and we’d ask that the Spirit of the Lord might be with us that we might touch the hearts of the people and make them happy for a while. That’s what it’s all about.”

The final curtain is sometime around 10:30. A tired but triumphant cast forms a reception line in the foyer to say goodnight. The customers are so caught up in the spirit that total strangers often come out talking to each other as if they were old friends, and they almost invariably want to stay and talk to the young people who have entertained them. They want to learn all about the cast—who they are, what they are, where they are from, and what it is that makes them different.

Laura Milano says, “After the show when we were outside shaking everybody’s hands, they’d be smiling from ear to ear. When they first walked in they sometimes looked unhappy or bored or tired, but when they left the show they were so happy and enthusiastic that you knew they had been impressed.”

This audience satisfaction shows in the box office. It brings customers back to the Playmill year after year and brings new customers in by word of mouth advertising. Many families plan their entire vacations around the Playmill productions each year, and others stop by in mid-vacation for just one show and change their whole itinerary to stay for all three. It isn’t at all unusual for a family to pull into town and head straight for the Playmill box office before even finding accommodations in the crowded motels.

One summer a vacationing family from California stopped to see one of the performances and then continued on toward El Paso, Texas, as planned. But as they traveled south, all anyone could talk about was the Playmill. Finally, somewhere in New Mexico, they made a U-turn in the middle of the highway and headed back to West Yellowstone, where they spent the rest of their vacation.

Another man who was driving two nuns to the west coast came with them to a show. They all loved it, and afterwards he wrote out a check for $100 and told the cast to buy themselves a treat with it. “This is the finest group of young people I’ve ever seen,” he said.

On another occasion a well-known professional choreographer stopped for one show and promptly changed his schedule so that he could stay for the other two.

Although the Playmill has been visited by many famous and influential people, the Playmillers’ first loyalty is to good, everyday people like themselves—the couple from nearby Ashton, Idaho, who see every production several times each summer, and occasionally bring delicious hot cinnamon bread and huckleberry pies; or the Utah family that operates a small restaurant and sends homemade chocolates to the cast each year; and many others like them.

Every year the Playmill receives voluminous mail from well-wishers all over the world. A man from New York wrote recently: “The three days I spent in West Yellowstone were truly an unforgettable experience. I can honestly say that I have never seen a group perform better. Your group has a charm and charisma that I have never seen anywhere else. I really wish the best of luck to every member of the cast. I am sure you will go as far as you want to. If any of you are ever in New York, I would be glad to have you stop by.”

Almost everyone who visits the Playmill remarks that there is something different about these young people, but not everyone is quite sure what it is. The Playmillers themselves have no such doubts. “The biggest reaction of many people is to the great enthusiasm and the different spirit that is prevalent here,” says Randy Turnbul. “Of course, they don’t know what causes that spirit, but they see other theaters and then see ours and they see something different here, and it is the light of the gospel.”

Marilyn Smedley reports, “People would say, ‘Wow! We’ve seen this same show on Broadway, and we think there’s something special about you guys that makes us like the Playmill better than Broadway,’ and I know it’s just the spirit of the gospel.”

The Playmillers don’t force religion on anyone, but people practically ask themselves the Golden Questions as they talk with the cast before and after shows. The fact that most of the players attend an LDS college often leads to discussion about the Church, and it isn’t surprising that the theater has become a valuable missionary tool as people from all over the world take home a feeling of love and warmth for some young Mormons they met in Montana. One cast member refers to the Playmill as “the strongest indirect missionary program the Church doesn’t have.”

Julie Ann Johnson says, “It was always a big thrill to be able to go into the audience at night and realize that many of them were not members of the Church, and that they were looking to you not only for a show but for an example.”

It’s impossible to calculate the total missionary influence the Playmill has had, but there are a number of cases in which the results have been clear.

A German family once came to see a show and fell in love with the whole cast. The father discovered the group was Mormon when he gave Brother Benson a bottle of champagne to help celebrate a successful performance, and, of course, he wanted to know more. The family took all the players to dinner, and they responded by turning West Yellowstone upside down in order to find a German Book of Mormon for the family. At last report the family was investigating the Church in Germany.

Several years ago an Australian and his daughter came to a show and were impressed with the “something different” about the cast. He was later baptized.

Two performers from the Golden Garter, a rival theater in town, were baptized after being influenced by Playmillers to investigate the Church.

A group of Mormon students with summer jobs in Yellowstone Park brought several nonmember friends to a Playmill production, and four of them were later baptized. The LDS students didn’t even have to bring the Church up; their nonmember friends were so impressed with the Playmill that they brought it up themselves.

The highlight of one summer for many players was the baptism of Lucie Asboe, the only nonmember in the troupe. She was baptized in the river and confirmed by Playmill cast members.

The players are aware that they represent the Church at all times. Almost everyone in West Yellowstone knows that they are LDS, and people are proud of what they stand for.

“When we first came here this summer we would go around town meeting people and telling them we were from Playmill,” one young man says, “and almost invariably their faces would light up because of the reputation the Playmill has gained over the years.” It’s a real responsibility to maintain that kind of an image.

The Playmill experience of meeting people and helping them is an excellent preparation for missionary work, as several ex-Playmillers can testify.

Bryon Sorenson, now serving in the Oregon Mission, draws on his Playmill experience by asking people if he can come in and play their piano. Once inside, he plays LDS hymns and introduces the Church. Bryon baptized a talented young man named Randy Davenport who acted at the Playmill last summer. “I decided,” Randy says, “that if the Playmill could do for me what it did for Bryon, I wanted some of it.”

Among the dividends of the Playmill experience are the lifelong friendships formed between cast members. By living and working so closely together and ironing out the difficulties that arise, they really learn to love each other. But then, most Playmillers are rather impressive people to begin with.

“I came up here to see a show when I was 12, and it was like walking into a roomful of the most beautiful people in the world,” says Gary Lane. “I decided that night that I would like to come here and be a part of the Playmill Theater.”

Norlan Jacobs says, “You love the other players like brothers and sisters, and the love rubs off on everyone else you come in contact with.”

That includes the other Mormons in town. The cast members attend the West Yellowstone Branch, and many of them hold branch positions. Following the Sunday meetings, the cast members often end the day with an informal fireside, or perhaps a testimony meeting.

Playmill players take home a lot of memories, some of them of the noisy moments—like when a show went well, and the audience just wouldn’t stop applauding—and some of them just the quiet times—like moonlight on the river, a slice of pizza after a hard show, a friendly hand on the shoulder, a priesthood blessing the night you were ill—too many memories for just one summer, but somehow it happens.

Maybe the best one is remembering that you could really learn to love so many people you hadn’t even met before, just because they happened to be your brothers and sisters.

Comments from two former Playmillers sort of tell it all. “The saddest thing about the Playmill,” says the one, “is having to leave when the summer’s over.”

“It gives me goosebumps,” says the other, “just to talk about it.”

[photos] Photos by J. Ned Brewerton and David E. Marks