It’s hard to say what Venture is without saying what it isn’t. Venture isn’t a building, though we love our home on Montana Avenue. Venture isn’t one person or another – though it is anyone who wants to do or see challenging, exciting work. Venture isn’t a certain kind of play or playwright, but is any play (new or classic) that challenges and engages us. Venture isn’t an institution, it’s an experience.
Scenes from some recent productions at Venture (left to right) Venture Into The Night Fundraiser, Hank Williams: Lost Highway, Miss Saigon (concert version), Violet, One Act Play Festival, Young Jane Eyre, Lieutenant of Inishmore, A Kids Life, Man From Nebraska, Funky Bunch Teen Improv, Chicago, My Way, 1984, History Boys.
Past Performance Press from Billings Gazette
Mace Archer and Lysa Fox, together with a handful of friends and family, founded Venture twenty years ago because they saw a need in Billings: a need to see shows produced and performed by local artists that could only be seen in the store front theater spaces in New York and Chicago. They believed in the talent of the Billings actors’ community and knew from their own experience that they were craving work that would challenge their skills and stretch their imaginations. They were brave enough to take the risk that the audience was ready to be confronted with compelling, flawed and many times contradictory characters who would throw themselves nightly into the maelstrom of chaos which is so often the human condition. Twenty years ago the founders set out to bring an ‘edge’ to the Billings Theatre scene and today we carry on that tradition.
Venture’s first productions at then Eastern Montana College were not afraid to confront the audience on subject matters that might cause them to not only squirm in their seat but to question their prejudices and fears. Plays like Lonely Planet and The Baltimore Waltz unflinchingly revealed our collective denial of the AIDS epidemic at a time when the nation still believed it only affected homosexuals. God’s Country dealt with issues of racism and hatred happening in our own back yard with the surge of White Power groups creeping into our community. These early shows were challenging and exciting, and started to ‘create’ that feeling that is Venture.
In 1997 Venture took its shows from the Petro Theatre at EMC to the bars and restaurants of Billings. Adopting a cabaret style of theatre, Venture actors would entertain over the din of clinking beer glasses and noisy patrons in rooms where blue cigarette smoke still hung thick in the air. The Venture Unplugged shows were not only designed to entertain with their covers of popular songs and clever and humorous skits written by local playwrights but they also served to confront issues that were prevalent in the Billings social and cultural and political landscape. This kept with the founders’ belief that theatre was meant to be relevant to the audience’s world. During this time, Venture’s Improv troupe was also growing in popularity. The nomadic troupe quickly began to cultivate a loyal base of fans who gladly followed them from bar to bar all over Montana, and around Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado while Venture was still looking for a home.
As the fans grew it became clear that Venture would need to find a home. It seemed fitting that a theatre troupe so devoted to raw and gritty work would find its first home in an unfurnished garage on Central Avenue. Sets were built and rebuilt to accommodate the needs of each show; audience members packed the garage each weekend and sat on donated second hand couches. Actors made costume changes in the lobby and had to compete with the roar of the industrial heater to be heard. It was during this time that Venture’s commitment to feeding and generating new work by local playwrights was truly cemented into the ethos of the Venture aesthetic. It was in the garage that Venture Theatre’s One Act Play Festival truly exploded in its popularity.
It was also at the garage that Venture Theatre began its commitment to providing top quality arts education to youth in the Billings area with the first ever Venture Summer Theatre School in July of 2000. The first Venture Summer Theatre School only ran for half a day and served ten children in its first year. Today Venture’s Youth Conservatory presents classes and camps to over 400 students, and the community outreach program, Venture into the Schools, touches the lives of an additional 4000.
In October 2003, Venture found its home at our present location on Montana Ave. As Venture grew into their new home, the Youth Conservatory began to flourish, and production schedules grew.
In 2008, after Venture’s founders had both left the organization to pursue further dreams, Robert Brian Wood was hired as the new director of this energetic, spontaneous group. Today, Venture is an active, vital 501(c)3 non-profit organization. The company’s strength comes from the enthusiasm and generosity of its donors, volunteers, and artists. Venture now produces over 20 shows per year and conducts 14 classes per semester. And though Venture now lives in a ‘physical space’, the boisterous and pioneering spirit lives on. In its home on Montana Avenue, in a maze of classrooms, dance studios, and stages, with rehearsals, classes and shows in full ‘roar’ almost every hour of the week, Venture’s halls are seldom silent. On many weekends, patrons find productions happening on both Venture stages, and the audience members often lingers after the show well into the night – discussing and sharing a drink with the cast and crew.
Q2 Local Theater Gets a Boost
Gazette opinion: Opera-Venture merger ensures shows will go on May 17 2013
Venture Pays Back City
Venture Starts Paying Debts
Venture and Rimrock Opera Announce Collaboration
Can Venture Be Saved?
Venture Theatre Board Moves Forward
Brainstorming to Save Venture
Venture Improv (stories by Jaci Webb, Billings Gazette):
Still crazy after all these years
Classes and Youth
And I Know
It Goes Without Saying