In 1973, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks sent out a cast of amateur actors to seven towns and about a dozen free performances in its first season. That was just the beginning of what has become an anticipated summer event throughout Montana (and in lucky towns in the surrounding states of Idaho, North Dakota, Wyoming and Washington).

The second year, the organization paid the actors, but kept the free admission. And they produced two shows - The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice. That year, they visited 18 towns. And it kept growing. According to their website, quite a few people have now experienced the summer shows. They estimate 750,000 people and over 2,250 free performances.

The acting troupe comes into a town, sets up the outdoor stage in the morning, performs a show in the early evening, tears down the set, gets in their vehicles and go to the next town and do the same thing on the very next day.

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The official start of the Montana State University-based production company's summer tour is in its home base of Bozeman June 15th, when the tragedy of "King Lear" will take the stage for four consecutive nights. Then, the following week, the comedy "!2th Night" will have its own four-night run in one location.

Then, it's off to the races! The next week, the troupe will go to Hobson, Lewistown, Malta, Wolf Point, Sidney and Glendive. The breakneck pace continues into September. And, occasionally, they'll stay two days in a town, performing both plays.

Hamilton was one of those fortunate places last year, and will repeat this year. July 26 will be "12th Night" and July 27th will be "King Lear" on the Large Lawn of Sapphire Lutheran Homes, a block north of Bitterroot Health-Daly Hospital.

Hamilton has hosted the troupe for many years. They have performed different locations, though - at Hamilton's Legion Park, at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds, on the Daly Mansion lawn and, for several years now, at Sapphire Lutheran Homes.

Another of those two-day stays is in Missoula at the end of the run, with "12th Night" on September 6 and "King Lear" on September 7 at the University of Montana Oval. The full schedule is on the Shakespeare in the Parks website.

Sponsors from around the state pay for the performances and the actors sell "swag" (hats and shirts) at the end of each evening. It works well. How well? Shakespeare in the Parks earned the Montana Governor's Award for the Arts in 1991.

We wish the acting troupe safe travels on their yearly mission to "bring Shakespeare directly to the people of Montana."

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