Serving Southern Jefferson County in the Great State of Montana

Veteran Montana Shakespeare in the Parks Actor to Play Lead in 'Hamlet,' Takes on Additional Roles

Riley O'Toole has performed more than 600 times with Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, but this summer's tour will be extra special as he expands his contributions on and off the stage.

Now in his seventh summer tour with MSIP, O'Toole will play the lead role - a first for him - in Shakespeare's "Hamlet." It will also be his first tour as associate artistic director at MSIP, a full-time position he started in March, making him the first MSIP executive team member to travel with the theater group in recent years.

"I'm excited to go through that journey with all these folks and all these communities that have kind of gotten to know me over the years and to grow as an actor, as an artist, as a tour manager, and as a leader," O'Toole said.

MSIP, an outreach program of Montana State University's College of Arts and Architecture, will kick off its 52nd summer tour with a four-night run of "Hamlet" at the MSU Grove, starting June 12, where O'Toole will be front and center pondering whether "to be or not to be." The following week, June 19–22, the group will perform "The Winter's Tale." All eight performances at MSU start at 8 p.m. and, like all the summer tour stops, are free and open to the public.

O'Toole, the group's ten other actors, and dozens of other contributors are hard at work, rehearsing and preparing for the grueling summer tour that will visit 65 communities in five states. The troupe just started outdoor dress rehearsals after practicing inside and creating the costumes and stage elements from scratch during the past five weeks.

After the opening performances in Bozeman, the actors will load the stage, costumes, props, and sound system into a custom-built 25-foot trailer and hit the road for the summer.

The group spends about three hours setting up the stage at each tour stop before the evening performance. Then, they tear it all down, pack it all up, and start over again in the next town.

But amidst all the hustle and bustle, the actors connect with the audience, sometimes including three or four generations of a family.

"What's kept me coming back is how it's so much more than just being an actor," O'Toole said. "It's about engaging with communities. I mean, people host us in their homes. They feed us their favorite meals."

O'Toole's first role with MSIP was in a 2016 "The Comedy of Errors" production where he played Dromio of Ephesus. He hopes to bring some of that comedic energy - playing clowns has been his forte, O'Toole said - to the role of Hamlet, which, he said, "can be so doom and gloom."

In "The Winter's Tale," O'Toole will perform as the old shepherd, a smaller role, hopefully making his packed schedule more manageable.

As associate artistic director, O'Toole helps with fundraising, marketing, production, and grant writing. More than 80% of MSIP's funding comes from donations, grants, and sponsorships.

"Riley has been a staple of MSIP for many years now, and we are excited to have him working full-time with us here in the office," said Kevin Asselin, MSIP's executive artistic director. "I also can't wait to see him play the lead role of Hamlet during this year's summer tour and the audiences' response."

O'Toole became interested in acting in high school after the three-sport athlete fractured his ankle wrestling. He said acting helped him gain self-confidence and transformed him from a shy, reserved individual into a leader.

He has worked on MSIP's fall and spring tours, where the group performs for and visits with high school and elementary school students. During those sessions, he's enjoyed helping students go through similar transformations as he did, encouraging them to be silly or express themselves in a room full of their peers.

"I came out here and was given opportunities to do so much more than I could do as just an actor on stage," O'Toole said. "I found that I had so much more energy to be serving the mission of this company, to be engaging communities, to be putting something good out into the world."

O'Toole will embody the role of Hamlet when Montana Shakespeare in the Park presents Hamlet to the Whitehall community on Sunday, September 8th at 5 PM on the Main Street Green next to the Star Theatre.


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