TOPICS > Arts

Theatre Program Gives New Meaning to ‘Playtime’

July 23, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Arts education is typically not a staple of some heartland communities, so for nearly 40 years the Missoula Children's Theatre has been giving disadvantaged children an opportunity to discover their inner thespian. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, making a place on stage for children. Jeffrey Brown has the story.

PERFORMER: I like you. We’re too peas in a pod.

JEFFREY BROWN: The singers didn’t always hit their notes, the dancers were often out of step, and the actors sometimes forgot their lines.

But this recent performance of “The Princess and the Pea” in a small gym on the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation in northern Idaho had to be counted a smash hit, the latest in a nearly 40-year run of productions in communities all across the country where children otherwise have few opportunities to stage a play.

PERFORMER: I decree this test take place tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: It all began by accident in 1970 here in Missoula, Montana, where Jim Caron, an out-of-work actor from Chicago, found himself stranded when his V.W. van broke down as he headed for the West Coast.

JIM CARON, founder, Missoula Children’s Theatre: I noticed an audition poster for a play called “Man of La Mancha,” and I’d always wanted to play Sancho. Any good role for a fat guy, I’m there.

JEFFREY BROWN: The sidekick?

JIM CARON: That’s right. That’s right. So I auditioned and got the part. And that guy that ended up playing Don Quixote, we became very, very close friends. And he said, “Well, why don’t you hang around for a while? We’ll start a little theater company.” And neither one of us had ever done any children’s theater, but we — it was the only thing that wasn’t here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Karen and Don Collins did just that, and the Missoula Children’s Theatre was born, at first with adults performing plays for kids, until a call came one day from Miles City, Montana, a rural town 500 miles away, asking the company to come and put on “Snow White.” The two decided to cast local kids for the seven dwarves, unsure of the reception they’d get.

Finding actors in unlikely places

JIM CARON: It's not exactly the heartland of the American theater. So we were concerned that we would find seven kids whose daddies would let them be in a play, to be honest with you. We walked into the gymnasium, and there was 450 kids waiting for us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Four hundred and fifty?

JIM CARON: Yes, in this town of about 4,000 people. And that was our first indication that -- that number of kids was a hint that there was something out there.

JEFFREY BROWN: You realized there was a need?

JIM CARON: Exactly. Even in the most rural of communities, in the least arts-oriented -- seemingly, at least -- of communities, there was a need, a desire, or a curiosity, at least, about the arts.

Lily's here. Constance is over there.

JEFFREY BROWN: MCT, as it's known, developed a simple formula: adapt a children's tale into a one-hour musical...

JIM CARON: OK, here we go. Ready?

JEFFREY BROWN: ... send a two-member team into a town. And in one week, from casting to performance, teach kids how to memorize their lines, learn the music and choreography, and put it all on stage.

JIM CARON: So we roll into town, and everything they need for the show, except actors, of course, is in this pickup truck.

JEFFREY BROWN: The whole thing?

JIM CARON: Everything is in here. There's some stuff that we put on the top -- some poles and such -- but, really, everything is in here, from...

JEFFREY BROWN: Scripts?

JIM CARON: ... scripts, sewing kits, to -- this is one of my favorites. This is some sort of rod for the Snow Queen, I believe.

One size fits many different kids

JEFFREY BROWN: The company's Missoula headquarters doubles as a local community art center with a theater in constant use, summer camps and classrooms, and as command center for the road shows.

SEAMSTRESS: Holy cow. That's huge.

JEFFREY BROWN: Seamstresses devise clever ways to make costumes that can fit a variety of sizes and shapes. The motto here, "One size fits a lot."

STAFFER: When the team is there, they're pretty self-sufficient.

JEFFREY BROWN: In another office, staffers contact schools and community centers and plan and chart the course of every team and production through the country and on a number of U.S. military bases abroad.

Terry Elander explained the complicated logistics.

TERRY ELANDER: Each column is one tour team of two people with a red truck full of sets, costumes, make up, and props. For instance, in January, we can do something between Utah and California with "Princess and the Pea."

JEFFREY BROWN: But this is literally -- you've got to do it between Murray, Utah, and Shasta, California?

TERRY ELANDER: Correct. We do a lot of MapQuesting here.

JEFFREY BROWN: This year alone, 47 teams will bring 15 different productions, from "Little Red Riding Hood" to "Pinocchio," to some 1,300 towns, which pay $2,000 to $4,000.

Three hours away in Plummer, Idaho, population 997, we met up with MCT team members 27-year-old Jeremiah Henrickson and 26-year-old Erica Zintek working with children as the big performance neared.

JEREMIAH HENRICKSON: If you're standing out on stage and somebody next to you forgets their line and you know their line, go and say their line for them. It's OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: Henrickson has been on the road like this for two years, at times going into communities where children have had no prior arts experience. He recalled arriving in a small village in Alaska.

JEREMIAH HENRICKSON: We were in front of the whole school explaining what we were doing that week, how much fun we were going to have, and the principal stepped in and explained exactly what a play was.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you had to explain the whole notion of getting up on stage and what theater is?

JEREMIAH HENRICKSON: Yes, performing lines, memorizing lines, walking around the stage, having a stage, having a set up. The whole thing, we had to start from basics.

Building confidence through theater

GIRL: Do you think the king likes me?

JEFFREY BROWN: This was the third year the Plummer community had asked the company to come to down. And kids who'd been too shy to try for speaking parts last year were eager to try this time.

So is it easier this year?

GIRL: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What happened last year? Were you nervous last year?

GIRL: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were you?

GIRL: Yes. I'm nervous today!

JEFFREY BROWN: You're still nervous?

Last minute jitters aside, Lori Delorme, a youth director for the Coeur d'Alene tribe, sees real growth in the children.

LORI DELORME, youth director, Coeur D'Alene Indian Tribe: All of our kids have their own stories. And, unfortunately, have a lot of drug and alcohol abuse. And 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so you think theater, getting up in front of people, whatever, can help?

LORI DELORME: You know, and they can be different characters. They can express themselves. And, you know, when you're a lead role, I mean, how can that not make you feel good?

ERICA ZINTEK: I suppose it's the key you're worried about?

JEFFREY BROWN: Erica Zintek says she sees it all the time.

ERICA ZINTEK: We have one this week who had auditions. She didn't want to say her name and age. She would not even step forward. We had to say, "OK, we'll come back to you" a few times. And now she's having a lot of fun.

PERFORMER: You haven't seen the last of this princess, Ice Boy!

The show must go on

ERICA ZINTEK: She did the impossible in a week. She was able to learn her lines and move leaps and bounds from Monday to Friday. 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."

JIM CARON: To this day, I don't exactly understand how it works. 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. And you can see the light bulbs going over their heads. And they relate this experience and the elements of this experience to other things in their lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: Forty years into his accidental career, Jim Caron is ready to take a giant new step. In the fall, MCT will open a performing arts high school in Missoula for students from around the country, again aiming at those who otherwise lack such an option.

PERFORMERS: (singing)

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, the shows go on. After the final bow was taken in the Plummer gym, it was time to dismantle the set, pack up the bags...

ERICA ZINTEK: Bye, Sonia. You did great.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... say some tearful goodbyes, and drive the red pickup towards the next princess, the next pea, the next stage filled with eager children.