Snowy Range Summer Theatre to Present Homegrown Tribute to Wyoming Community Journalism
The University of Wyoming Snowy Range Summer Theatre will close its 60th season with “Waiting for A Chinook (A New Play about Old Newspapers),” a fictional memoir written by Gregory Hinton and directed by UW Professor Leigh Selting.
It shows Tuesday, July 9-Saturday, July 13, at 7:30 p.m. in the Buchanan Center for the Performing Arts (formerly Fine Arts Building) Studio Theatre. Tickets, $10 for the public, and $7 for students, senior citizens and children over 5, are available at the Wyoming Union or Performing Arts box offices, online at www.uwyo.edu/finearts, or by calling (307) 766-6666.
In the wake of the drastic declines suffered by metro daily newspapers in 2008, “Waiting for A Chinook” follows Vince, a disillusioned city reporter, who returns to his boyhood Western town to search for place and meaning in the writings of his late father, Cliff, a Wyoming country editor.
“Sometimes, I can hear these old newspapers talking,” he is told by Ramona, a dedicated and spirited county archivist who quickly becomes both sparring partner and guide.
“The daily reporter just might be the 21st century version of Willie Loman (from Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’),” Hinton says. “So many newspapers have stopped their presses, with thousands of newspaper jobs lost and never to return.”
Selting says he was drawn to the project several years ago after working with Hinton on another production.
“When Greg mentioned he had a play in mind that had a backdrop in community newspaper journalism, and that it was set in Wyoming, I was immediately interested in collaborating in any way possible,” Selting says. “With an undergraduate background in journalism myself, I’ve really enjoyed the journey we’ve taken with this piece, watching it take shape, become more dynamic, and work-shopping the play in three states with 12 different actors over the past year and a half.”
An acclaimed writer, filmmaker and independent curator, Hinton grew up in Cody, the son of G.C. “Kip” Hinton, prize-winning photojournalist and editor of the Cody Enterprise (1956-1962), which was originally founded by William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Selting is a professor and chair of the UW Department of Theatre and Dance, and also serves as the artistic director of the Snowy Range Summer Theatre Festival.
Guest actors include Martha Slater and Jake Staley, both Wyoming natives and UW Theatre and Dance alumni; and Colorado-born Tom Watkins. The play also has benefited from the patronage of former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, his wife, Anne; and Pete and Lynne Simpson.
The playbill image of Chinook, courtesy of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West where Hinton was a resident fellow, is adapted directly from the famous 1903 version of Charles M. Russell’s “Waiting for A Chinook” (a warm Western wind) depicting a starving steer, standing in a blizzard with five wolves closing in. In Montana’s hard winter of 1886-87, the Chinooks never arrived, and thousands of cattle, fending for themselves on the open range, perished from starvation.
“We are pleased that one of our most beloved Russell Western paintings, ‘Waiting for A Chinook,’ has inspired a contemporary work of art in another medium and a new century,” says Bruce Eldredge, executive director and CEO of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, “and that the underlying scholarship for Greg’s play -- his dad’s original newspapers-- began in the center’s McCracken Research Library.”
“It was irresistible not to compare the Russell watercolor -- essentially a political cartoon -- to the decline in print journalism,” says Hinton, who first used it in a lecture about his dad’s legacy on the 50th anniversary of the Whitney Gallery of Western Art.
While metro daily papers are still struggling, in his early research, Hinton soon learned that community weeklies are holding their own.
“As the middle guy in three generations of small-town community journalism stretching back to the 1930s,” says Jim Hicks, retired publisher/editor of the Buffalo Bulletin and 2006 Wyoming Press Association Hall of Fame inductee, “I've seen great impact forced by technology. Expansion of radio into small towns was going to kill the community newspaper. Then television was the death call for the little paper, and now it’s the Internet in all its forms of personal communication. But, somehow, objective reporting and journalism ethics keep the printed word afloat in most of these towns and villages.”
Hicks says communities without hometown papers are communities without souls.
“Citizens recognize they have no substitute for an effective watchdog of local government than their hometown paper,” Hicks says. “At this level, the ‘fourth estate’ is alive and well, and bless those who toil on by spending hours at meetings of city councils, school boards or county commissions, and then use their skills to present the information in an organized manner the citizens can grasp in minutes of reading.”
“Waiting for A Chinook” is informed by “Wot a Week!,” Kip Hinton’s weekly Enterprise column, and “Community Journalism, A Way of Life,” the noted book about weekly newspapers by the late Bruce M. Kennedy of Greybull, whose family has owned the Enterprise since 1971.
Kip Hinton took this July 1960 photo during his time as editor of the Cody Enterprise. (Kip Hinton)