The Billings Outpost

NOVA in black for year 2


Time travel, lecherous church elders, spelling bee competitors, stamp collecting thugs and Shakespeare. These are but the tip of the iceberg in the upcoming season at the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts.

Ambitious? Yes. Challenging? Yes. Doable? Yes, according to Interim Managing Producer Craig Huisenga.

Fourteen productions in the 10 months between August and May is something most theater companies wouldn’t consider. But, it is precisely what Mr. Huisenga had in mind when he accepted his new position: to establish NOVA as a true performing arts center. His vision includes more dance performances and classes, independent film screenings and a new identity for the two groups that have merged to become NOVA – Venture Theater and Rimrock Opera Company.

Mr. Huisenga refers to the merger as a marriage of convenience. “Venture had a building, but no money. Rimrock Opera had money, but no building. Now, we’re making our way, paying our taxes,” he added, noting an ongoing effort to establish a better business footing for the two arts organizations.

So far, so good. The first season has been financially successful, with all productions emerging in the black. With a stacked production calendar and an added push to rent event-space in the center to local organizations, the upcoming season looks to be equally successful.  

The 2014-15 main stage seasons kicks off with “Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang. The comedy captured the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Play. With Chekov-laced references, the play has been called the “strongest comedy Broadway has to offer.” It will run Sept. 12-27 in the Roebling Theater. The remaining productions are as follows:

• “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” by William Finn. This comedic musical looks at life through a nerd’s-eye lens, featuring young adults in the roles of the six kids vying for the championship. Oct. 10-25 in the Roebling Theater.

• “La Traviata” by Giuseppe Verdi, a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, will be sung in the original Italian. Oct. 30, Nov. 1 at the Alberta Bair Theater.

• “Mauritius” by Teresa Rebeck is the featured “Rankin File” selection of the season. Two sisters discover their dead father has left them a pair of very rare stamps. And the plot grows stickier from there. Nov. 7-22 in the Black Box Theater.

• “It’s a Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Play” by Joe Landry features just a handful of actors bouncing from role to role – and sound effect to sound effect. Dec. 5-20 in the Roebling Theater.

• “Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Gian Carlo Menotti is being considered for an annual staging at NOVA. Jan. 9-11 in the Roebling Theater.

• “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” by William Shakespeare. Girl meets boy.  Girl disguises as boy to be near boy. Girl (disguised as boy) is pursued by girl loved by boy. Trust me, it’s funny. Jan. 16-31 in the Black Box Theater.

• “Susannah” by Carlisle Floyd. Opera meets the hill country of Tennessee in this McCarthy-era twist of false accusations, rumors and lust. Feb. 6, 8, 13, 15. Directed by Doug Nagel in the Roebling Theater.

• “Communicating Doors,” by Alan Ayckbourn. One hotel suite, three different eras and an audience gasping for air in this hilarious tale of time travel.  March 20 to April 4 in the Roebling Theater.

• “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim. The Tony Award winner that brought us the hit song “Send in the Clowns.” May 15-30 in the Roebling Theater.

The Youth Conservatory season features:

• “Big, the Musical” by John Weidman. Based on the hit film starring Tom Hanks, a young boy unwittingly becomes an adult overnight. Aug. 14-24 in the Roebling Theater.

• “Boy at the Edge of Everything” by Finegan Kruckemeyer. Embrace a young boy’s imagination as he travels through space and time. Oct. 3-12 in the Black Box Theater.

• “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis. Long considered one of the great pieces of children’s literature, the story is about four young travelers who discover Narnia and the evil witch that rules the land.  Feb. 27, March 1, 6, 8 in the Roebling Theater.

• “Dinosaurs Before Dark” by Mary Pope Osborne. Another time travel adventure as two friends find themselves living inside the pages of a book among dinosaurs and other ancient creatures. April 17-26 in the Roebling Theater.

For more information, visit or call 591-9535.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 April 2014 19:32

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Bridge narrowly approved


Courtesy of High Plains Architects This rendering of the proposed pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks in downtown Billings shows the view looking south from Montana Avenue. The latest version has the carriage on the left and only one landing, not two.Nearly 13 years after it was proposed, a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks in downtown Billings might finally be built this summer.

Chris Hertz, an engineer with the city’s Public Works Department, expects to call for construction bids by mid-May, which would mean beginning construction in mid-June.

The long-awaited bridge barely survived its final vote by the Billings City Council on Monday night. The vote was 5-4, with one absence and one abstention, to approve an easement and construction and maintenance agreement with Montana Rail Link.

Steel supports on either side of the tracks at 25th Street would be built first. The bridge, a century-old structure that once spanned Rock Creek, would then be trucked in from Joliet and mounted over the tracks. Hertz said the project could be done sometime in September.

“It’s definitely one of the more complicated projects we’ve worked on,” he said.

It’s been so complicated that previous construction estimates have proven much too optimistic. In 2010, the transportation planner with the city-county Planning Department, Scott Walker, said that “with any luck,” the project would be done by the fall of 2011.

“We weren’t lucky,” Walker said Monday.

Montana Rail Link, which owns the railroad property in downtown Billings, was quite cooperative and not to blame for any of the delays, he said. And the blame doesn’t lie with any one of the other agencies involved in the project, he said; it’s just that there were so many of them.

Besides the planning and public works departments, agencies that signed off on various aspects of the project included the Montana Department of Transportation, the downtown Billings Improvement District, the Downtown Billings Association and the Billings Depot.

“It’s just hard to go through the process,” Walker said. “We’ve never done anything like this.”

The steel-truss bridge, 18 feet wide and 111 feet long, would be 24 feet above the ground, with stairs and an “incline lift” on either end. The lift, for handicapped access, would basically be a miniature cable railway, with a carriage pulled by a cable from the ground to the deck of the bridge. The stairs would also be equipped with a ramp along their edge so bicyclists can push their bikes up or down.

Hertz said an elevator for handicapped access was ruled out early in the process because of concerns about vandalism or breakdowns. A ramp was also ruled out because to have a gradual ascent it would have been nearly a block long.

The bridge was proposed in 2001 by High Plains Architects, one of seven firms invited to contribute to an “urban design sketchbook” that was part of a follow-up to a larger planning process for the downtown.

Randy Hafer, co-owner of High Plains, said his firm originally proposed building two bridges, one at 25th Street and the other at 30th, as part of a pedestrian loop tying the Montana-Minnesota-avenues historic district together.

City Councilman Brent Cromley of Ward 1, which encompasses the bridge, said Monday night he was opposed to the bridge partly because of its location. He said South 25th Street gets little use, and he feared that the bridge might also be rarely used and end up in disrepair.

Hafer said a second bridge could still be built in the future, but he expects the bridge at 25th Street to spur a new round of development on Minnesota Avenue.

“I think it’s going to be huge,” he said.

There is already talk of reviving Old Town Neighbors Inc., a group of property owners who were trying to encourage a Montana Avenue-like renaissance across the tracks.

A parking lot next to the bridge on Minnesota Avenue was meant to anchor the east end of the Old Town Neighborhood, Hafer said, and the Parking Advisory Board previously expressed interest in building a lot there. He said he hopes the board will take up that subject again.

The total cost of the bridge project is estimated at a little more than $1 million, most of which is coming from federal transportation funds, administered by the MDT. Smaller local contributions came from the city, the DBA, BikeNet, the Sample Foundation and the Scott Fund/US Bank.

The bridge is owned by Charles Ringer, a metal sculptor who has had the structure on his property in Joliet since 1988. It was built over Rock Creek in 1901 as a horse-and-buggy bridge and was bought by Ringer after it was decommissioned.

He is still willing to sell it to the city, Hertz said. The city is researching how to move it to Billings. Hertz said it might have to go by way of Columbus to avoid overpasses and other obstacles.

Like Hafer, DBA director Lisa Harmon thinks the bridge will be a big help to Minnesota Avenue.

“It’s going to stimulate and catalyze a lot of development on Minnesota,” she said. “We’re excited about it.”

Once it’s in place, she said, the DBA will begin to explore the possibility of installing public art on the bridge, a concept that has been talked about since the bridge was proposed.

Hafer expects the bridge to be great for pedestrians and bicyclists but also an attraction itself, thanks to the cable car and the interesting view of downtown Billings from the 24-foot-high deck.

“I think that incline lift is going to prove to be a really popular thing, especially for families,” he said.

Last Updated on Sunday, 30 March 2014 13:45

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Bleak future for Montana workers seen

Story and Photo - By JANE WHITE - For The Outpost

Montana’s dearth of trained workers and sparse internet infrastructure hamstrings the workers of Montana, especially those who want to earn big bucks in the global village of the internet age, says Danny Choriki, a self-described humanist, consultant, writer, strategist and techie.

Mr. Choriki spoke earlier this month at the Billings Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. He told the 23 people at the lecture that the dated nature of Montana’s internet infrastructure and its oil economy mire it in the past. Modern-day Montana remains stuck in intractable virtual territory, Choriki said.

Mr. Choriki attended Montana State University Bozeman and the City University of New York, where he did graduate work in environmental psychology, operations management in tech startups and “evaluation research of information technology in the public schools” of New York City. He said his main field of study now lies in how people deal with technological change in their daily lives.

His talk, “One Brief Shining Moment: Income Inequality in the Postmodern Economy,” characterized the 65-year-olds retiring today as the singular generation to benefit from the post-World War II Baby Boom, which was the most significant build-up of wealth in history.

Choriki said the time to celebrate shining moments is over, and he painted a bleak work picture for the future. Any worker in a single-earner situation or without a graduate degree would not make it today, especially in the internet economy.

“Income inequality, stagnant incomes now; only college grads and dual earner families make it today,” said Choriki.

The speaker described a wealth of actions by mine owners, industrialists and technology magnates who behaved like sociopaths in the way they either used people, then just threw them away or the way they massively stole.

Choriki said identifying sociopaths in the workplace is a popular topic in business literature.

“If you Google ‘sociopaths in the workplace,’ you’ll see that it has amassed quite a body of work over the last ten years or so,” wrote Choriki. For example, Martha Stout, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School wrote “The Sociopath in the Office Next Door.”

Another provocative title was “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work,” by Paul Babiak and David Hare.

Some of those sociopaths were mine owners and others relying on cheap labor in an unregulated system. Choriki said Montanans have not learned key lessons from the Treasure State’s history, such as actions by the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. in Butte. According to author Mary Murphy, who wrote “Mining Cultures,” Anaconda and other companies in the name of ever higher profits committed murder, squashed unions and wounded striking workers.

For instance, at the 1920 Anaconda Road Massacre in Butte, federal troops deputized mine company guards and shot a union organizer. The federal troops also wounded 16 others, “shooting all of them in the back as they fled,” wrote Murphy.

Another lesson from Montana industrial history lies in Libby and the poisoning of workers in its vermiculite mines. Federal funds still pay for the care of the workers – long denied any kind of union or other protection –  afflicted with lung disease caused by working in vermiculite mines. Unions that wanted to create laws to protect workers met with great resistance in Montana.

What have Montana’s business leaders been doing? They have not been forward thinking, as shown by the examples of other leading U.S. cities, Choriki said.

He cited the urban planning concepts of Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash., as prime examples of excellent land-use planning, environmental innovation and human scale. He said Montana would benefit in the long term by becoming less dependent on natural resource extraction and more involved in the new internet economy.

He noted that Oracle recently decided to bring in its own labor force to work in its Bozeman facility.

“What Oracle is doing by importing labor keeps Montanans as just a grease spot along the road to the global village,” said Choriki. According to the author of Montana Cowgirl, a popular left-leaning blog, Oracle in late 2013 requested 600 work visas for future workers in Bozeman. Most of those workers would likely come from India or China, said Choriki.

In a long-term reversal of fortune, Mr. Choriki said Montana’s failure to invest in public education, infrastructure and to develop a cheaper way of living, while natural resources are faltering, has trapped Montana and the United States. Suburbs with lawns are too expensive to sustain. Long commutes are costly, poisonous to the environment and injurious to the psyche.

“Instead of driving, we could be dialing: this is an example of how communications technology should be replacing transportation. Having Oracle in Montana is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a vibrant internet economy. This is a failure of vision on the part of the legislative and executive branches of the government of the state of Montana.

“We should be pouring money into research and development, science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics - STEAM education from the ages of 3 and 4, publicly accessible multi-way video communications between all schools, libraries and public offices. We need open access to public data.”

He added, “We need to stop bending over backwards for the sake of any job. Montanans need to help themselves. We need to take advantage of others’ needs for our resources and charge them for the external costs (pollution, noise, environmental degradation, urban decay). We need to use that revenue to invest in ourselves, our futures and our children’s futures.

“We need to find a new piece of land Montanans can work to improve. Hence, the education, training, start up investments and infrastructure needed to build Montana into a ‘Global Village.’ ”

Choriki also cautioned against the lure of fast money in the Bakken. “We have Butte as a shining example of what to be prepared for when the fast money leaves. The Coal Severance Tax should be expanded to include any form of resource extraction, including lumber, grain, electricity, wind, coal and petroleum. The funds from the Coal Severance Tax should be applied to the various forms of resource extraction as well as loans and direct investment into Montana-based start ups and infrastructure that start ups need.”   

“Henry Ford knew that the early American version of a good business model was win-win. That is why he paid his workers enough so they could all afford a Model-T. The buy-low–sell-high model is not sustainable,” said Choriki.

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 March 2014 13:27

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