25 August 2009

Missoula Children’s Theatre

Last month, the PBS program NewsHour broadcast a profile of the Missoula Children’s Theatre in Montana. I was greatly impressed with this company’s programs and its approach to theater for and by young people. MCT’s been around for 40 years and its work spreads all across the U.S. and into foreign countries where we have military bases, so it hardly needs my pat-on-the-back, but I was moved enough by Jeffrey Brown’s report that I sent founder and executive director Jim Caron a message through the company’s website, Missoula Children's Theatre: MCT Inc. (http://www.mctinc.org).

My own interest in children’s theater started when I was in college. Toward the end of my four years, the wife of the university theater’s director, Betty Kahn, and Pree Ray, the wife of one of my English profs, produced a performance of The Emperor’s New Clothes that toured county schools and community centers. (I played the evil Grand Vizier!). The following year, after I’d graduated and was working in the theater’s shop until I had to report for active military duty, Betty and Pree put together a children’s theater workshop and Betty recruited me to teach a class of third-graders. Besides both these efforts having been fun, the experience taught me some things. First, kids are natural actors and they have almost boundless imaginations. (Years later, working with some fourth-graders on a playwriting project, I learned just how far those imaginations can range.) Even the shiest kid can come alive with a little guidance and support and the right stimulus. Second, children are also natural audiences. Theater people often refer to “the willing suspension of disbelief,” the readiness to be fooled by what you see and hear, and children are born that way. Just as they believe implicitly in what they’re doing when they act out, they believe what they see on TV, in the movies, or on stage. (The challenge with audiences of children is that the performers have to keep them involved because, unlike adults, once the kids’ attention is lost, it’s almost impossible to get it back.)

But I also learned a third lesson from this early experience. Though children are natural audiences, they can’t become audiences unless they’re exposed to live theater. These days, with satellites, cable, and DVD’s, TV and movies go pretty much everywhere. Live theater only goes where people bring it. If it’s not indigenous, someone has to import it. Adults who have never learned to love live theater as children are less likely to appreciate its value later, which is why I campaign for stronger arts-in-education programs for schools. I also support community-based theater programs, especially those that include performances for and by children and young people. Ya gotta get ‘em while they’re young!

Unfortunately, I also learned another lesson later when I continued to work in what is “officially” (that is, by Actors’ Equity) known as Theater for Young Audiences: a lot of children’s theater, including the scripts, is awful. It’s silly and inane, full of frenetic movement and action that is often empty of any real thought or ideas, little more than artistic pabulum. Just because it’s theater for children doesn’t mean it has to be childish. (Childlike is an asset; childish isn’t.) One of the reasons that the PBS report on MCT caught my attention is that its work is thoughtful, well-planned, and still entirely child-oriented. Their whole philosophy, what they call their mission, is to bring theater and the performing experience to communities where there’s no performing arts program for children. “Most of the towns we go to don't even have a full-time music teacher,” observes Caron. The program provides the kids with another way to express themselves and succeed, alongside academics and sports. MCT serves as a stop-gap in communities where budget cuts have eliminated arts programs but sometimes it rekindles interest in the arts which can lead to the reestablishment of arts education in the schools and community centers. They go just about anywhere, focusing on small towns, military bases at home and abroad, and Indian reservations. Intrepid seems like the right word for the MCT teams that carry live theater into these communities. Generous might be another.

According to Caron, the whole thing was an accident. An out-of-work actor, he was on his way from Chicago to Oregon in the summer of 1970, on his way to a friend’s wedding. His van broke down in Montana and the nearest garage was in Missoula. Waiting for his VW bus to be repaired, Caron saw a poster announcing auditions for a local production of Man of La Mancha. “I'd always wanted to play Sancho,” the portly Caron said. “Any good role for a fat guy, I'm there.” So, just for fun, he auditioned. He got the part and developed a friendship with the actor playing Don Quixote, Don Collins. Collins convinced Caron to stick around Missoula, a college and mill town of almost 30,000 residents, and the two formed a troupe of adults to do plays for children in a local movie theater. They knew nothing about children’s theater--“in fact,” admits Caron, “we didn’t know anything about children.” The idea of performances for children, as well as the plays they staged, was enthusiastically received and nearby towns began inviting the company to present performances around Montana and Idaho. Caron and Collins had begun to use children in some of the plays, casting them as Hansel and Gretel, the dwarves in Snow White, and so on. In February 1972, what was now MCT was invited to do Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in Miles City, Montana, a cattle town with just under 10,000 inhabitants some 500 miles from Missoula, but the directors didn’t relish the idea of traveling across the frozen state with children in their care. They decided to cast local kids as the seven dwarves and Caron and Collins went off to Miles City a week before the rest of the troupe and put an ad in the Miles City Star. The two weren’t sure what kind of reception they’d get, but they were astounded when 450 children showed up at the auditions for the seven parts. Snow White sold out the whole week in Miles City and the idea of local participation was wildly successful among the parents, teachers, and the local media. MCT’s basic plan for its future productions was born.

What the company does now is translate a familiar children’s story into a one-hour musical. They’ve used such tales as Pinocchio, The Princess and the Pea, Little Red Riding Hood, as well as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, and most of the well-known fables of Western children’s lit. Caron, who writes most of the scripts, uses the familiar stories because they work best for the sponsoring communities, he says. When a community books a production, MCT sends a two-member team who function as both actors and directors (and theater teachers, casting directors, stage managers, choreographers, voice coaches, family counselors, therapists, new friends, referees, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera). (The team also provides “enrichment workshops” for schools or community groups.) Sometimes, the team has to explain what a play is and what “theater” is. “The whole thing,” says one road director, “we had to start from basics.” Perfection isn’t a priority goal--a good experience is.

The town provides housing for each team member for a week and during that period they cast the show, teach the children about putting on a performance, rehearse the show, and present it for the town. "We're a hit-and-run theater," a member of one MCT road team says. "We audition, rehearse all week and put on a show Saturday.” The team arrives on Sunday in a little red pick-up truck stocked with everything they need, from props to costumes to lights, to put up the show--except, of course, the cast. They hold their auditions on Monday, rehearse Tuesday through Friday, and present two performances of the production on Saturday. On the following Sunday, the team’s off to the next town to repeat the process with a new group of excited children.

The auditioners, ranging in age from 5 to 18 years old, are winnowed from hundreds down to the 50 or 60 who will appear on stage. (Kids interested in tech or directing are also recruited to staff the production crews and assist the road team.) It’s the hardest part of the process for both the team members and the children (and, of course, the parents, too). The Actor/Directors, as they’re called, learn how to say things like, “If you don’t get a role, don’t walk away upset. Walk away proud that you did something that 90 percent of the people in this world would be terrified to do,” and, “If you didn’t get [a] part, it doesn’t mean you’re not good. It just means there wasn’t a part that was exactly right for you. Keep acting”--and mean it. "We know what to look for," says Caron, "a kid who is eager to be involved and not necessarily talented, who has the emotional courage to stand up before an audience." A team member explains, "We are looking for different things, and you never know what you're auditioning for." Everything that happens at the audition session is part of the audition, they emphasize.

Back home in Missoula, where the headquarters is a new facility opened in 1998, the productions are booked, the road teams are coordinated, the costumes and props are built, and the scripts prepared. Each team’s route from Missoula is carefully mapped so that they can make stops along the most efficiently-planned course. (Each road team carries the wherewithal for one of the plays in MCT’s repertoire.) In 2009, MCT, the country’s largest touring children's theater, sent out 47 teams with 15 different productions across the U.S. and into Canada to 1,300 communities which pay from $2,000 to $4,000 for the service. The sponsor keeps all the money from ticket sales, which are invariably sell-outs. (Tickets run up to $15 or so. There is no charge for a child to participate in the production.) MCT also has a local season in its home theater, tours nationally and internationally, conducts performing arts camps and workshops for teachers across the country, and in the fall will open a performing arts high school for teens from all over the U.S.

Collins, who is MCT’s Senior Development Officer, and Caron are well into middle age now, of course, but most of the touring teams are in their early to mid-20s. Driving across the plains, especially in the dead of a northern winter, for weeks on end is surely a young person’s gig. They can go for 10 weeks before they get a day off, covering territory from the Pacific Northwest to New England. Caron estimates that it takes half a year to get good at the job, and most team members return for another gig--some as many as 10 seasons. I don’t know how much the road teams get paid--certainly not much, I wouldn’t think--but you can bet they earn it. And, I also suspect, they love the work. In fact, one team member insists, “It’s not easy but it certainly is rewarding,” and another echoes, “It’s really fun, but it’s a lot of work.” At the end of the performance, the enthusiasm and sheer joy is visible even through the TV screen. (Another lesson I learned working with children’s theater is that the kids’ glee when they succeed is immensely gratifying to see.) “To this day, I don't exactly understand how it works,” says Caron. “But, I mean, Mom and Dad are cheering for them, and so are all the friends, and, you know, the kid that made fun of them on the playground last week, they're all cheering for them.” Some communities have invited MCT back year after year, and children who were too shy or uncertain one year, are in front of the line for leading roles the next. Some participate from when they discover MCT until they age out--and then go on to find other outlets. "Our goal is not to teach acting, but to teach self-esteem," remarks Caron. “You can see the light bulbs going over their heads,” he maintains. “And they relate this experience and the elements of this experience to other things in their lives.”

Of course, I’ve been promoting children’s theater programs for their value to theater and the arts directly--building audiences and inculcating a sense of the value of the arts in our culture. But as Caron observed just now, theater by children has many other important repercussions, too. “You know,” declares the youth director of an Idaho Indian reservation, “when you're a lead role, I mean, how can that not make you feel good?” Concerned with substance abuse among young Indians, the youth director further affirms, “One of our goals in our programs is, when the kids have that self-esteem and they have that confidence, then they're less likely to, you know, choose drugs and alcohol.” The sense of accomplishment alone is a huge benefit, especially for children who have few other outlets. A road team member describes the effect on one young performer: “And I think that that will give her a sense of confidence, and then she'll know, ‘If I can do that, I could bring up my grades, and I could pass a test, and that will be easy compared to this.’" I taught theater to kids in middle school for a couple of years and I can attest to the feeling of having succeeded at something they invested in that the actors and crew got from presenting a performance they worked weeks to prepare. The reward? People applauded them! In my very first assignment at a private school in Brooklyn, I remember one girl in particular who learned something wonderful from the experience. I was supposed to do a one-act play in the spring term, and we were doing The Rude Mechanicals, compiled from the parts of Midsummer Night’s Dream that depict the laborers Bottom, Quince, and all rehearsing and performing Pyramus and Thisbe. The cast was all girls and I cast an enthusiastic eighth-grader named Ariadne as Snug, who did the lion’s part in P&T. She objected because the lion has no lines. I explained to Ariadne that she shouldn’t necessarily count lines as the measure of a role and that I guaranteed her that the lion would be an audience favorite. When my prediction proved right--the spectators just howled at her antics--Ariadne came to me, beaming from ear to ear, and admitted she’d had a lot of fun doing that role. As a teacher I counted that production a great success, not least because of what Ariadne said.

I continue to be interested in TYA, as it’s called nowadays. (I still really prefer “children’s theater,” despite whatever imprecision the term implies. It’s a warmer name.) I did more plays for children when I was in the army (including one we presented on the military TV network), later when I was in grad school, and after I started trying to work as a pro actor. (I did a mute clown, a mime role, in a production of Robin Short’s The Red Shoes which, like Ariadne’s experience, was an immense success with the kids in the audience. I still have the letters and drawings they sent me.) I stage-managed a touring children’s show in and around Middlesex County, New Jersey, and I directed an original version of Aladdin at the historic Provincetown Playhouse (in front of a permanent cyc Eugene O’Neill had helped build!). That last script was written by a friend, Kirk Woodward, who has composed a number of great children’s plays, both musical and straight, and I try to keep up with what he’s doing in that vein because his plays (available at http://spiceplays.com) are decidedly not among the children’s theater trash I complained about earlier. (Kirk also writes adult plays, but I have always told him that I think his children’s scripts are truly special.) My commitment to theater for kids isn’t as active as it once was, but I still applaud efforts that advance the cause. MCT is clearly one of the good guys.

The experience that is the Missoula Children’s Theatre is portrayed in a 2008 documentary, The Little Red Truck, by Robert Whitehair and Pam Voth, released by Tree and Sky Media Arts Ltd. The 98-minute, PG-rated film, narrated by actor J. K. Simmons (Law & Order, The Closer, Juno), depicts a composite one-week session of an MCT team in a small town (and one big one: Hollywood, California, of all places) as they go through the whole process of putting up a play. (An article in the Big Sky Journal of Bozeman, Montana, reports on the making of the documentary; see http://www.bigskyjournal.com/%20articles/big-sky-journal/fall-2008/52/local-knowledge-the-little-red-truck.html.) The film’s available on DVD at Blockbuster, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and the MCT website, among other sources.

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