Alpine Theatre Project finds new home in Whitefish

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Luke Walrath of the Alpine Theatre Project stands in the center of the dance floor space in their new space, The Garage, on Tuesday, January 2, in Whitefish.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

What once was an auto shop on U.S. 93 in Whitefish has been transformed: a wood floor sits where oil-stained concrete was before and a rainbow stream of costumes fills the lion’s share of an upstairs loft. Remnants of 14 years of theater add color to the space in the form of show posters, props and hats and above a large mirror covering most of one wall are the words “The Garage” spelled out in lit metal letters.

It is the new home of the the Alpine Theatre Project — a Whitefish-based nonprofit known for bringing Broadway-level talent to star in their Flathead Valley productions.

The group moved in last November and began transforming the garage into a performance space. Weyerhaeuser donated lumber for the wood floor, they hung curtains, painted the walls and built a series of storage lofts to house everything from chairs and set props to costumes and more.

The new digs will give ATP the home base they’ve been searching for — the contents of their nine storage units will finally have a permanent home, making supplies much easier to track down. But perhaps more importantly, The Garage will serve as ATP’s rehearsal space. Instead of renting the often-booked Whitefish Performing Arts Center, they’ll have their own area to run lines, get into character and put on a show. The Garage also includes a small studio apartment, which they’ll rent out to help offset the cost of their new home, and to house visiting artists.

While ATP’s main performances will still take place at the center, ATP director of marketing and development Luke Walrath said he hopes to host smaller shows and concerts in The Garage in addition to rehearsals and classes.

“This is our home, this is where we get to create,” Walrath said.

In addition to ATP’s professional lineup, they produce spring and fall children’s shows, which they started in 2008. But new this year, the theater company is offering a host of youth theater classes through their freshly launched Alpine Theater Project Academy.

Walrath said the classes were born out of a desire to do more for the community and fill the void of after-school theater lessons. He said that children who are involved in ATP or other local productions don’t have a space to continue their study of acting apart from those few shows each year. The nearest theater classes offered on a regular basis take place in Helena, Walrath said.

“As a nonprofit, you’re constantly asking yourself, ‘Am I doing the most good?,’” he said. “If we can provide that, an opportunity for these kids to find their voice, I think that’s work worth doing.”

He said theater teaches children valuable skills such as teamwork, confidence building and empathy.

“In acting, [empathy] is one of the biggest skills that you have to learn — you have to be able to listen to what your scene partner is saying otherwise you can’t react naturally,” Walrath said. “That’s a great skill to have, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes … It’s not just about putting on a great show, it’s about making better people through involvement in the arts.”

Academy classes will be offered for grades kindergarten through 12th, beginning this coming Monday, Jan. 8. Walrath said. Enrollment will be capped at 15 students per class and Walrath said space is still available. ATP also offers tuition assistance of 50 percent for the Academy courses.

He and his wife, fellow Broadway veteran Betsi Morrison, will teach this year’s classes. He explained that course material will vary per age group, and noted that older students will get more involved in deeper acting concepts and scene work. As part of their training, upper level students will take on iconic roles as they work on key scenes from classics like “Carousel” and “West Side Story.”

“They get to take on some of these iconic roles, but not have the pressure of a performance. We get to just work on it, have fun,” Walrath said. “We have an opportunity and I think a responsibility … to get the next generation involved, to just show them the good that can come from being involved in the performing arts.”

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