The Bear Necessities: Shakespearean Animal Encounters

Kevin Brustuen

Montana InSite Theatre will present Animal Encounters: Shakespeare on the Rise in Bozeman’s Story Mill Park on June 28th, and at Tippet Rise in Fishtail, Montana, on June 29th and 30th.

One of the most famous stage directions in all of theatre history is from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, in which the stage directions say simply, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” This famous line has received so much attention through the years since it was first performed in 1611 that we can’t help but ask: how does Shakespeare use animals in his plays? And was this unusual for playwrights of his time? These are some of the questions that Montana InSite Theatre (MIST) plans to explore in this performance, written and directed by MIST co-founder, Gretchen Minton.

It’s not unusual for live theatre to use animals as characters, or as metaphors. But what does seem to be unusual in the case of Shakespearean drama is how many different kinds of animals are used, and how frequently they are used. A quick search shows that there are over 600 bird references in Shakespeare’s plays—a record that has not been surpassed by any other playwright or poet in western literature. There are references to over 100 other kinds of animals in his writings, but only two animals actually appear in Shakespeare’s plays: a dog (Two Gentlemen of Verona) and a bear (The Winter’s Tale).

It’s not surprising that literature from four centuries ago frequently referred to animals, considering how closely people then lived to nature and its creatures. Shakespeare was especially interested in the animal world, however, because he grew up in a small rural town in England: Stratford-Upon-Avon. His plays contain many references to nature, and speak to his rural agrarian roots, even when his stories are set in ancient Greece. Whether sources of food or clothing, essential means of transportation, threatening predators, or symbols of nobility, animals invariably captured Shakespeare’s imagination.

In Animal Encounters: Shakespeare on the Rise, MIST will explore six different scenes derived from Shakespeare’s plays: The Winter’s Tale, King Lear, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. MIST does not plan to use a live bear in this performance, but this is Montana!

Gretchen Minton edited and adapted Shakespeare’s plays into five scenes that take on the questions concerning Shakespeare’s animals, employing a stellar cast including Aaron Schuerr, Erik Pearson, Kata Fried, Kirsten Daniels, John Hosking, Keegan Grady, Joe Faifer, Charlotte Mae Ellison, Susan Miller, George Keller, Mercy Simpson, Jess Benoit, Lauren Chavez, and Luke Minton. These actors bring music in the form of singing and violins, art in the form of painting, and, of course, well-trained voices to declaim Shakespearean verse loud and clear over the plains of Montana.

This ambulatory, immersive experience encourages audiences to experience Shakespeare in original and meaningful ways. Small, guided groups will move through the grounds of Story Mill Park in Bozeman, as well as at the performances at Tippet Rise, as they listen to music, view art, and witness scenes that show varied relationships between humans and animals—some violent, some regenerative, some that put into question the boundaries between creatures. These scenes demonstrate how such encounters teach us to appreciate the wider ecosystem and our place within it. The pieces for Animal Encounters were chosen for their specificity to the site-specific location where they will be staged. The varied “stages” offered by the Story Mill Park, with its meandering river, climbing rock, and bird sanctuary, and Tippet Rise in the form of sculptures, art installations, and the living land itself, serve as aids to our interpretations and understandings of Shakespeare’s stories, and humanity itself.

Audience pods will be led from scene to scene by actor/guides in groups of 10 to 15 people per group, allowing for up-close and personal experiences with the actors and language. Each tour will last approximately 75 minutes, and will include a fairly level walking path about a mile long.

Founded in 2020, Montana InSite Theatre uses theatre to explore current issues, including environmental degradation, climate change, and other crises that impact both local and global communities. MIST aims to stage productions in site-specific locations which, in and of themselves, provide context and meaning to the text and images. The name Montana InSite Theatre, is derived from a play on the word “InSite,” as the theatre company hopes to provide insight into ideas and thoughts, and incite people to think critically; also, their presentations are usually performed in site-specific locations and venues.

Shows will be performed in Bozeman at Story Mill Park on Friday evening, June 28th, and at Tippet Rise on Saturday and Sunday, June 29th and 30th. Performances are free in Story Mill Park, and only $20 at Tippet Rise. Registration is required for the shows performed there. MIST does ask that attendees sign up for a specific time slot ahead of the productions. For more information, please visit the Montana InSite Theatre webpage at, or visit their Instagram site at Montanainsite.  

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