Missoula Children's Theatre's Little Red Truck rolls back into town

Island kids line up for auditions in last year
Island kids line up for auditions in last year's visit of Missoula Children's Theatre production of 'Cinderella.' This year, the show is 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.'
— image credit: James Krall

They're back, those pied pipers of personal growth.

The more comfortable you can get them in their own skin prior to adolescence, the better they'll be able to handle the onslaught on their identity during their teenage years.

Life skills. Empowerment.

Terms overused to the point of triteness, to be sure, but important concepts nonetheless.

Adolescence is the crucible: all the prep work that goes into them before adolescence pays off big time once they're through it. Getting them comfortable with who they are – and getting them to believe you love them no matter what – is a huge challenge.

Theatre helps. So do sports. Any structured activity where children are challenged on several levels, where they can experience both success and failure while being reinforced socially pays huge dividends by the time they enter high school.

That's why Missoula Children's Theatre (MCT), and activities like it are so important. MCT's Little Red Truck™ will be rolling off the ferry Sunday night in preparation for Monday's auditions.

For over 30 years, MCT has been traveling around North America producing shows and creating art and energetic self-confident kids in 1100 communities. Their program includes around 65,000 children annually.

In six days, Sarah Wright and Kepler Correia will bring 50 to 60 island kids into the MCT fold and hold them together while they hold each other up in a six-day schedule, beginning-to-end performance of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves".

Wright and Correia move from town to town throughout the Pacific Northwest, auditioning kids on Monday, and working with them intensively until performance comes on Saturday at 3 and 7 p.m. The week is an intense one: rehearsals run up to three hours each depending on the parts. Younger actors work alongside older actors, who usually get the most difficult parts, and MCT brings all the sets, costumes and props.

There's no getting around it. If parents are looking for a way to get their child out of the house and into something that is really really good for them, an MCT show is just about perfect.

"I think it was the best things I ever did in my childhood, to be perfectly honest," Jenni Merritt said.

Merritt grew up in the theater, spending much of her time in both school productions directed by Fred Yockers and jumping into summer MCT productions every chance she got. "I think I was eight years old when I got into my first Missoula show," she said. "I was in 18 productions until I was too old to audition. They used to come twice a summer – way fun."

Merritt went from acting in productions to helping Yockers out with the school productions in the last several years. She has seen kids grow in the most unusual ways though involvement in theater.

"You learn so much stuff when you're in a Missoula show," Merritt said. "How to buckle down and get a job done. How to work with other kids. Even in just one week, I saw super shy kids who, by the end of the week, were running around playing and interacting with others."

Kim Wickman's daughter Emma, by any measure, holds herself with poise on stage. Emma has been in Missoula shows, said her mother. "She loved it," Wickman said. "I think it's amazing. She's pretty confident. Over the last couple of years, and with that Jazzfly play, she seems to have confidence about being on stage. She's willing to try anything."

"I grew," Bristol Whalen said. To say that Whalen's experience in theater has helped shape her is accurate: she's currently studying German and Theater at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. "What I got out of it was how to do amazing things with a lot of people in a short amount of time. I made friends really fast by doing something cool. It has a lasting impression."

While new to many kids, the production of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is in the current MCT rotation, as are many other fairy tales. It's the third time the production has come to the island since Merritt was eight years old, she said. "It's a good play," she said.

Lest there be any doubt as to whether an MCT production sticks with the kids long after they grow onto other things, Merritt leaves no doubt. "It's a lot of fun. It has one of the best little kid's songs in it. It's the 'Bat Song.' All the kids sing this song about being bats. It's very, very catchy. I still know all the words to it."

Auditions for this year's Missoula Children's Theater production of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is open to K-12 children. Auditions are 9 a.m. Monday, June 23 at San Juan Community Theatre. Performances are Saturday, June 28 at 3 and 7 p.m.

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