Dynamic drama: Missoula Children’s Theatre races into Franklin

Each time they arrive in a new town, the organizers of the Missoula Children’s Theater are in a race against time.

They have just days to cast a children’s performance, teach the kids their lines, rehearse and hit the stage. Costumes have to adjusted, scenery and lighting has to be figured out and cues must be perfected. More importantly, they have to pass on their own love for theater to the assembled group of kids, both experienced actors and first-timers.

The experience is exhilarating.

“The opportunity to take a show to so many different communities with all different children has been life-changing,” said Elke Myers, who will be leading the theater troupe in Franklin. “Getting to see how kids blossom and grow through just one week has been inspiring. These kids have so much love and joy for theatre and getting to work with them is a blast.”

The Missoula Children’s Theatre returns to Johnson County this week. Starting Monday with auditions, they’ll work with youth at the Historic Artcraft Theatre to stage “Hansel and Gretel.”

The audition for “Hansel and Gretel” will be held at 10 a.m. Monday, June 13, at Johnson County Museum of History, 135 N. Main St., Franklin. Roles are available for those entering first grade up to high school seniors.

“By the end of the week, they’ve accomplished something together, and they can see the result of their work and dedication unfold in front of them, from learning their lines to performing them on stage to their families and friends,” said Dave Windisch, director of marketing for the Artcraft Theatre. “It’s a neat thing to see them blossom like this.”

The Missoula Children’s Theatre is a nonprofit organization based in Missoula, Montana. The troupe has been staging shows since the 1970s, experimenting with the practice of casting children in the communities where they were performing.

“So many arts programs around the country are losing funding and disappearing from curriculums. Bringing the experience of putting on a full-scale musical not only exposes children to theatre and the arts but also shows them just how much they can do in just six short days,” Myers said. “These kids work so hard and at the end of just one week are able to perform a show that they can be incredibly proud of.”

Over the course of 2022, more than 65,000 cast members across the globe will take to the stage in a display of true community theater. More than 300 shows are planned across the United States.

The theater has made Franklin one of its summer stops since 2015, though the past two years have been cancelled due to the pandemic, Windisch said.

On June 13, approximately 50 to 60 local students will be cast to appear in the show, guided by a tour actor and director from the Missoula Children’s Theatre. Up to four students will be cast as assistant directors.

“You don’t have to know what you’re doing, but the old saying is, ‘A smile never hurts,’” Windisch said.

Though the organization aims to include as many students as possible in the show, there is no guarantee that everyone who auditions will be cast in the play.

Students wishing to audition must arrive by the scheduled starting time and stay for the entire two-hour session. The first rehearsal begins approximately 15 minutes after the audition.

“It’s the perfect thing for kids who maybe are interested in getting more involved in theater, but aren’t sure if it’s something they like,” Windisch said. “It’s a perfect way to dip their toes in.”

Rehearsals will be conducted every day at the Artcraft Theatre. Although not all cast members will be needed at every session, those auditioning must have a clear schedule for the entire week and if selected, be able to attend all rehearsals required for their role and be available for all scheduled performances.

A detailed rehearsal schedule will be distributed at the conclusion of the audition. Cast members scheduled for the full four hours and 15 minutes will be asked to bring a sack lunch, dinner or snack to be eaten during the 15-minute break between sessions.

“The kids who are in (Missoula Children’s Theatre) shows are some of the most hard-working kids around. If you asked most adults to take a script and memorize lines, songs, and movement in just five days they would look at you like you had lost your mind, but the kids do it with a smile,” Myers said.

In addition to the rehearsals, theater staff will present free workshops for the students taking part — helping further their skills in case they want to continue exploring theater.

“One of the most rewarding parts of the job is seeing that shy kid blossom in ways you never imagined,” said Talley Sugg, who will also be leading the troupe. “Seeing these kids we don’t know trust us with something as vulnerable as live theatre fills my heart like nothing else does. It’s also really fun to see the different energy each person brings into the roles each week.”

This year’s residency is made possible by Indiana Arts Commission, Harold and Cathy Sisson, Sisters of Tri-Kappa / Zeta Chapter, and the city of Franklin.

“We’ve had a lot of public support from people who want the kids to be able to do this,” Windisch said.