Missoula Children’s Theatre Comes to Harlem
Saturday night, right here in my own home town of Harlem , I attended a live theatre production. Along with two hundred excited parents, family members and friends, I watched thirty children, cast in a variety of roles, cavort across the stage in “Pinocchio”.
But for me the fun began the previous Sunday afternoon when Dan Watson and Lydia Jane Graeff, a team of directors from the Missoula Children’s Theatre, drove their little red truck into my driveway, and came inside to meet me and to see what was to be their home for the following week. I showed them to their rooms so they could unpack and take a few moments to relax before their work began.
Missoula Children’s Theatre has been around for forty years. If co-founder Jim Caron, out of a job and on his way to Oregon , had not broken down while driving his ancient VW van near Missoula , MCT might not exist. While waiting for repairs, he noticed a poster advertising auditions for the musical, “Man of La Mancha”. “Why not,” he thought, “just for fun”. He found himself cast in the play and during the run developed a friendship with Don Collins who played the lead.
After “ La Mancha ” closed, Caron and Collins formed a company to present theatre for children. Their efforts in Missoula were such a success that soon Jim and Don were receiving requests from other communities to perform for their children.
When they started they cast adults in the plays, with children only playing appropriate roles. In the winter of ’72 the company was booked to travel to Miles City for a production of “Snow White”. Jim and Don were hesitant to take seven children on that long trip over the icy roads. They took the radical step of driving to Miles City ahead of the rest of the crew, hoping they would find seven children willing to spend the week of preparation and be part of play. Four hundred fifty children showed up for auditions and the present form of Missoula Children’s Theatre was conceived.
Today hopeful directors audition to be part of Missoula Children’s Theatre. They are intensively trained and placed in teams of two which travel throughout the United States in little red trucks with the MCT logo prominent on the doors. International teams take theatre around the world. My new friends, Dan and Lydia , rookies with MCT, are touring “Pinocchio” to Montana and Wyoming communities. In their truck they carry their clothing and personal effects, the scripts, lighting, props, costumes, make-up, sets and all the equipment needed to create a stage wherever they go. Every Sunday they arrive at a new home. They cast up to sixty children and rehearse throughout the week. On Saturday they raise the set, run through a dress rehearsal, briefly rest and on Saturday evening the kids perform for the community. After the play, Dan and Lydia tear down the set and load all the equipment back into the truck. Early Sunday morning they head down the road.
For some communities MCT is the only live theatre to which their children are exposed. This is the second year that the newly organized Harlem PTO has sponsored MCT’s appearance. Last year sixteen children participated. This year thirty children signed up for the hard work of rehearsals every night after school. This is not just simple entertainment. MCT states “the primary goal, indeed the organization’s mission, is the development of life skills in children through participation in the performing arts.” I know how hard our kids worked, because I saw their directors drag through my front door chewing their hair at the end of the evening, looking like road kill. Yet each day, Dan and Lydia returned to school eager to help the kids build the next layer of competence.
Finally the big night arrived. I went to the high school to see the play performed on the same stage where we had plays when I was a student. The old gym, with its stage on one side, is the only remaining part of old Harlem High. I sat through the performance, a grin pasted across my face, delighted at the bravery of the kids. I silently cheered for each young actor and held my breath whenever the action on the stage came to a halt, evidence of lost lines. But these children did it. They pulled it off. The show was a triumph.
After the play, parents took thousands of photographs, locking in memories forever. Dan and Lydia , together with a few community members, broke down the stage and packed the entire set and all the equipment into the little red truck. We came back to my house to celebrate and over a feast of pizza, talked theatre and life (and aren’t they the same thing) until midnight. Sunday morning I waved good-by to my two new friends as they headed down the road to their next gig.
HDN: Looking out my back door
April 21, 2011