Play time

Missoula Children’s Theatre gets local kids on stage

Missoula Children’s Theatre, now in its 35th year of touring around the United States and internationally, had an interesting, and seemingly destined, beginning. It all started in 1970, when Jim Caron was driving his Volkswagen van from Chicago to Oregon for a friend’s wedding. Somewhere along the way, his van broke down. That somewhere happened to be in Missoula, Mont. As he was waiting for his van to be fixed, Caron came across a poster calling for actors for Man of La Mancha. He auditioned for the play and, fatefully, landed the part of Sancho. On the set, he met Don Collins, who was playing the role of Don Quixote, and the two became fast friends.

Shortly thereafter, Caron, now CEO of MCT, and Collins, the current senior development officer, formed a company of adults who did live theater for kids. The plays became popular in Missoula and word spread. Soon communities in Montana and Idaho began inviting the company to come and put on performances.

Reno has done the same. Missoula Children’s Theatre will be returning to Artown for its fifth consecutive year this July.

The company began taking fairy tales and developing them into plays expressly geared toward children. They started to use children in the productions when it seemed appropriate. During the winter of 1972, they were to put on a performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Miles City, a small community some 500 miles from Missoula. Caron decided it would be unsafe to travel with seven children across the state in icy conditions. As an alternative, he suggested they cast local children in Miles City as the dwarfs. The directors went to Miles City ahead of the rest of the cast and were shocked to see more than 300 children show up for the auditions. The response was overwhelming, and it was obvious there was a need for cultural programs that would engage the kids in rural Montana. MCT’s current program grew from there.

There are now 47 teams on the road in North America. Each team is made up of two actors/directors. The plays are original musicals adapted from children’s stories and written with the idea that they are to be produced and performed in one week’s time. The team comes to town and holds a two-hour group audition—the kids don’t need to have any materials prepared—at the beginning of the week. They announce the cast and create a schedule for rehearsal. The children rehearse for the rest of the week, and the whole thing culminates with a public performance. The company also brings everything needed to put on the production—costumes, makeup, even lighting.

This year during Artown, MCT will put on their version of The Pied Piper on July 25 at Nightingale Concert Hall on the UNR campus. They are looking for around 50 local youths to participate in the production. Auditions will be held Monday, July 20. Parents can contact Artown at 322-1538 to register their children and get more information.

Something unique about MCT is that they bring youth ranging from first through 12th grade together to work as a team to make the production happen, explains Jonna Michelson, MCT’s tour marketing director. “It’s all about the development of life skills through performing arts. That’s our mission. It’s a real confidence builder and learning experience for the kids to go through the process together, working as a team.”