Theater Expert Tom Watson Takes Film School to New Heights

Cammie Reid

As the Resident Scene Designer for Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (MSIP) and an Associate Professor at the Montana State University School of Film, Tom Watson regularly finds himself at the helm of the vibrant and clamoring theater scene that flanks our Bozeman arts community.

This Spring, he will star in a play called Proof alongside a gaggle of his students, but as Watson counts the days until curtains up, he has time to reflect on the winding path he has seen the scene travel, however firm-minded he may have been the whole time.

Watson always knew that he wanted to be active in theatrics. In high school, he allowed himself to be bussed daily into the city of Fort Lauderdale to attend afternoon classes at a performing arts school, and even graduated early at the age of 17. Soon after, he received his undergraduate degree in Theater Performance from the University of Idaho in Moscow. “I knew back then that I enjoyed theater and I wanted to keep doing it, and I just haven’t stopped I guess,” said Watson.

Soon after graduating, he got his first job at a dinner theater in Denver, where he made his first real paychecks working as an actor. He said, “I always had a dream that I wanted to get paid as an actor, so I had that stint where I was actually getting a paycheck for performing. I later thought that that was maybe a curse that I had only dreamed of that far, and since I had accomplished it suddenly my life had to change and I had to do something else”.

Which is how Watson found himself in a graduate program in Nebraska, where he switched from studying Theater Performance to studying Stage Design. During his time in Lincoln, Nebraska, he got to design costumes, something he had never done before, for a show called American Buffalo. “It was a good exercise to really design and devise the whole picture, and to think about the storytelling related to the visuals and how you were gonna reinforce what the story is and who the people are, and how to make good artistic choices to do that without just randomly deciding what to do,” Watson said.

Now, Watson uses his wisdom to shine upon students in the School of Film, teaching the dramatic arts to a field of many facets. He teaches courses from Advanced Makeup, which includes lessons on prosthetic design, to Theater Production, a class that fully produces a live theatrical performance each semester. “I now sometimes wonder about my identity. I have two colleagues that just retired, so now I’m the only theater academic left in this department. It’s the age of extinction or something like that, but it’s still going on,” Watson shared, reminiscing on a time when Theater was its own department at Montana State University, just before he arrived here in Bozeman.

Around when Watson first came to Bozeman, the University had made the decision to dissolve the Theater department into Film and Television, which was a much younger department.

“When I arrived the theater department had already dissolved and merged with Film and Television. So at that point, the theater professors were still teaching with the understanding that film students needed a grasp on the dramatic crafts, like acting, directing, and production design. So I joined the group knowing full well that it was a theater department evolving into a film-centric department. But I was okay with that.” he said.

The new department would be called the School of Film and Theater Arts, and in order to create filmmakers that were prepared for the new millennium, Watson knew that he would have to keep the dramatic crafts involved with theater production such as acting and set design alive.

Watson insists, “This department is always thinking about how media should be talked about and taught,” understanding that a clean evolution is important to keep up in a fast-paced world. Now, he teaches dramatic crafts to film students while also keeping live production running in Bozeman. He sees to it that live theater gets put on each year in both the Black Box Theater and the Procrastinator on the Montana State University campus, and film students are often involved. “They really enjoy storytelling from that side,”Watson divulged, telling of his Theater Production class which is composed solely of students from the now-dubbed School of Film and Photography.

This Spring, the class will be putting on a production called Proof, and Watson himself has a starring role, proving he still grasps many angles of the dramatic crafts. Talking about his flexibility in theater, he said “The collaborative nature of theater is something I’ve always enjoyed ... all of the people involved contribute up until it’s ultimately there. It’s not just one person that should get the credit.”

And that love for theater has motivated him to support the theatrical arts both on and off campus, stretching his expertise to the larger theater community of Bozeman.

Watson first moved with his Montanan wife to Bozeman in the Spring of 1997. He began his tenure with MSIP the following Summer, where he still works as Resident Scene Director. Though now, due to the expansion of the program, he shares the responsibility across the multitude of productions put on by the company. He also teaches in their education program dubbed “Shakespeare in the Schools,” which boasts performances across and outside the state of Montana.

At the Willson School, he worked as Stage Manager for a production of The Nutcracker, and helped as a Technical Director for an original show by the Montana Ballet Company. Ever since Montana Theater works bought the Ellen, Watson has been a member of their team, given his love of the rich vaudeville history that theater represents. There, he has designed sets for A Christmas Carol and White Christmas, as well as others. He also performed there, as an actor in the show Fiddler on the Roof.

“Theater has been around ever since the Greeks … It still exists. It’s still here. There’s still a place for it to happen. There’s some logic for it to happen,” Watson insists, a mantra he seems to live out every day.    

This was made by

Cammie Reid

Cammie Reid is a student, writer, and environmentalist at Montana State University. Hailing from the East Coast, she has written in publications in three different cities before arriving in Bozeman in 2017.

View more of Cammie Reid's work »