Guest blogger and Mobile Music Lessons faculty member Samantha Worth (pictured) shares her experience as a director for a traveling children's theater! We are proud of her for continuing her teaching as she impacts children's lives across the country:
If you’ve ever directed a children’s theater production, you know that it is a long, emotional journey, from the first rehearsal to opening night. Now, imagine that journey condensed into five days. This is the life of a Missoula Children’s Theater (MCT) Tour Actor/Director.
MCT is the world’s largest non-profit touring children’s theater. Based in Missoula, Montana, MCT sends teams of two professional actors/educators to all 50 states, five Canadian provinces, and 17 countries year-round. The International Tour Project aims to bring theater to communities with little to no arts opportunities. Every week, a team of two Tour Actor/Directors, (TADs), roll into a town in a little red truck, ready to put on a musical.
But to really understand what a week with Missoula Children’s Theater in your town would look like, we have to lay out a week in the life of a TAD.
Sunday: The team of two drives to their location. They arrive, sleep off the weariness of a long day of travel, and get ready to audition a group of kids the next day.
Monday: The team arrives at a school, church, or some type of youth organization. They meet with a representative from that organization to get a feel for the size of the group and what the kids are like.
Then comes the fun part, the audition. Now, this isn’t your typical 32-bar-cut and contrasting monologue situation. It’s more like one big game—the TADs lead the kids in some silly line-readings, gaging who out of the group can handle a lead role and who can handle a supporting role. TADs can often communicate with each other through one look, an eyebrow raise to each other that says, “This kid is definitely our Pinocchio”, or, “This one is the Wolf”. By the end of the two-hour session, they have cast the entire show, sometimes having exchanged only a few words to each other.
The cast is announced and the games begin.
Remainder of the Week: The kids work hard for two to four hours every day during the rest of the week, learning their lines, the music, and the choreography. They surprise you with how capable and fearless they are.
At the end of the week, we do the show. Grandmas, grandpas, dads, moms, cousins, and sometimes even pets fill the gym, auditorium, or community center to watch what their kids have been doing all week. Even the most unenthusiastic, too cool for school teenagers become jittery and excited as the lights go down.
One of my proudest moments was in a small farming community outside of Billings, Montana. Actually, small isn’t the right word, it was more like miniscule. There is one K-12 school in the entire town. They have a choir program but that’s pretty much it as far as arts programming, so the extracurricular options are either sports or milking the cows.
On Monday, we had our cast. We cast a freshman boy as one of our main roles. Often, in auditions, we can only really base our casting decisions on spunk or personality due to the limited amount of time we have. Something about this kids’ dry humor and mischievous smile spoke to us; to protect his privacy I will call him Joe. Of course, as a teenage boy, Joe was aloof and cynical at first. I think I heard him say “I can’t sing” about a million times. But as the week went on, he blossomed into one of, if not the, stand out cast members. It is frequent that we have so much show to teach in such a short amount of time that we don’t get to really coach the kids on acting. We had a big group this week, so every second was spent teaching the show. But that didn’t matter because Joe took the initiative. By the time we were rehearsing the show onstage, he was finding moments of humor and making physical comedic choices. I shed a tear one day when we were singing one of the songs in the show together but he was so confident that he didn’t need me to sing with him anymore.
We came to learn that Joe has severe asthma and is immunocompromised, so he wasn’t at school for quite a while last year. The asthma prevents him from playing sports. What’s a kid like that to do in a town with no opportunities outside of football? Towards the end of the week, one of the teachers at the school told us, “Joe found his thing." After the performance his dad told me, “Wow, I didn’t know he could sing." Neither did Joe.
This is what MCT’s tour program is about. The people who need theater most are kids like Joe, kids who live in houses where it’s a struggle to get food on the table, kids with broken homes, or even kids who just struggle with finding their identity. Because when you’re doing a play, for a little while, all of that stuff fades to the background. It’s about you immersing yourself in the world of Pinocchio or Little Red Riding Hood’s forest. For some kids, it ignites a passion that evolves into a life-long love of the arts. For some, it doesn’t. But it shows them that they can do things they didn’t think they could, just like Joe.
I won’t lie. Being on the road is hard. Just when a hotel or guest room starts to feel like home, you have to pack up and leave it for the next hotel or guest room. It is disorienting and draining. Sometimes the drives span several days. There’s not a lot of room to breath. Sometimes I felt like I was going insane and honestly, sometimes I wanted to quit. But then a kid like Joe comes to you and you just revel in how amazing it all is. There’s something intangible about it. How can getting a big group together, learning lines, music, and choreography so deeply affect and empower people? I don’t even know the answer. But what is undeniable are the smiles and laughter of the children, the sometimes very emotional thank yous from parents, and the pure joy that radiates off of the stage at the end of the week.
If you’ve ever doubted the impact of arts education, you’ve never seen the Missoula Children’s Theater in action. It’s not just the kids. I’ve never felt more fulfilled than at the end of a week on tour, receiving thank you cards and scribbled drawings from cast members. It uncovered my true passion for arts education and inspired me to pursue my teaching license. Just like some of these kids and even parents, my life has been changed by the Missoula Children’s Theater.