Theater tour stops in Hill City

Esther Noe
“Missoula Children’s Theatre (MCT) has been around for 50 years and is the largest touring children’s theater in the nation,” said tour actor director Mandi Fielding. 
This includes all 50 states, 17 countries and five Canadian provinces. Their children’s tour program occurs every week, year-around. 
According to tour actor director Charlie Rankin, the mission of MCT is to bring theater to all parts of the world, especially in smaller towns where kids won’t have any exposure to it. 
“It’s allowing them to get a taste of what bigger city kids get on a regular basis, and it’s really special,” he said.
This vision is why Jamie Duprey from Hill City school’s Parent Involvement Parent Teacher Organization decided to bring MCT to the school district for the first time in 2018. 
Duprey grew up participating in MCT tours.
“I loved it as a kid and was always involved growing up, and have such fond memories,” she said.
“It was very fun and very memorable,” Duprey said. She can even still sing the songs from the plays she participated in. 
However, Duprey said, “When we moved here, I was disappointed my own kids wouldn’t have the opportunity, so I decided to make it happen.”
Now, students in the Hill City School District have the opportunity to participate in MCT every year. This gives them a chance to experience theater, get out of their comfort zone, learn new skills, perform for people, find a space where they can shine, make new friends and discover new passions. 
“It’s a unique week where they get a chance to learn something new and just do something completely fun,” Duprey said.
For the MCT tour program, a team of two tour actor directors travel from school to school putting on plays with the children. On Monday, they conduct auditions for the various roles in the play. Casting is decided based on confidence and willingness to do something crazy or silly. 
As soon as auditions are completed, the cast starts rehearsing. By Thursday, they have a dress rehearsal. 
Then on Friday and Saturday, the kids perform the play for their classmates and community. All told, the play is an hour long with live music, singing, dancing and storytelling. 
“It’s fast and furious and the kids do an incredible job memorizing all of the songs, and all of the lines and all of the cues,” Duprey said. 
This gives the kids the ability to see how fast they can learn something and do things they may never have considered before. 
“I’ve been acting professionally since I was 19. I started out really small in my community theater and got to work backstage, and then from there, worked with bigger companies and eventually got to be on stage and backstage at the same time. It’s been really fun. It’s never boring,” Rankin said.
Meanwhile, Fielding’s love of theater was inspired by MCT. 
“I grew up doing Missoula so it’s really neat to be on the other side of it now and be teaching the kids rather than being the one learning along with them,” Fielding said. “Missoula sparked my interest to be a theater major in college, and then every year, after I got my driver’s license and was in college for a few years, I auditioned and auditioned for Missoula because this was my dream job.”
Fielding began working with MCT last January, and Rankin began with a February to May tour before starting up again this fall. 
Ranking and Fielding travel across the country and often see dramatic shifts in weather patterns and landscape from week to week. With the constant change, Rankin said that doing the same show on the same schedule adds a comforting sense of familiarity. However, the kids always bring a fresh perspective.
Sept. 19, Rankin and Fielding began the tour in Hill City. Throughout the week, they emphasized using a theater voice, stage presence, working as a team and paying attention to what teammates were doing. 
The kids were also encouraged to improvise and use their personalities to bring their characters to life. 
“I love seeing them start to click,” Rankin said. 
There is a light bulb moment where the kids recognize they are going to perform something they are truly proud of. 
“Missoula Children’s Theatre always writes scripts from well known stories and adds fun spins,” Duprey said. “They always have a good message.”
 This year, the play was “Red Riding Hood” and around 30 kids were involved. In this adaptation, Red Riding Hood, played by Alyssa Nelson, is convinced she is old enough to go over the river and through the woods to visit her sick grandmother. Her mother agrees as long as Red promises to stay on the trail. 
However, Red and her girlfriends, Caressa Griswold, Delysia Loehr and Josie Winter discover the importance of following the rules the hard way. 
Some other fun twists included the addition of Red’s cousin Robin Hood, played by Henry Shaffer; The Boy Who Cries Wolf, played by Patrick O’Brien; and the three little pigs, played by Eleanor O’Brien, Freyja Ott and Lily Brose. 
It also turns out that the Big Bad Wolf is not bad at all. In actuality, he is trying to stop his brother, Little Loveable Wolf, played by Emily Doaty, and his wolf gang from causing trouble but he usually gets blamed for it instead. 
At the end of the first performance, the kids were bursting with enthusiasm.  
“I think it was awesome,” Doaty said. 
Meanwhile, one of the wolf gang members said, “I learned that if you mess up, just keep going with it. Just keep trying.”
“My favorite part had to be all of the dances I was in,” said Shaffer. “Especially the party dance. That was my favorite.”
“It was so much fun because I got to steal the picnic basket and stuff. That was the best part,” O’Brien said.
“This has been a really fun week. I’ve really enjoyed it. These kids are making really funny decisions and sticking to them,” Rankin said.  
She was also impressed by the kids’ dedication and memorization. “Our Red Riding Hood, her three best friends and our Ranger Rooney were off script by Tuesday pretty much,  Rankin said.
Fielding agreed, saying, “I worked with our youngest kid group which is the raccoons, and they got it so fast, all of their stuff. It’s really exciting to see even the littlest kids getting everything into their heads and making it awesome.” 
According to Duprey, this experience was completely funded by local donors and contributors in the community. This, she said, “is really a gift.” 
“Bringing different opportunities for our kids is something that we as community members can provide them with so they can explore new possibilities,” Duprey said. 

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