Theater group focuses on stimulating kids
You get to encounter situations where young people are growing and developing through the arts. You can see a sense of pride when (children) increase their opportunities and grow in confidence and social awareness and work as a team,” said Erik Heuchert, one of the actor/directors from the Missoula Children’s Theatre (MCT) now touring military bases in the Asia-Pacific region.
The tour actor/directors of the children’s theater are the group’s foot soldiers who travel across the U.S. and overseas spreading the gospel of theater and the performing arts as a way to help children develop life skills.
Recruited at theater conferences around the country, where they audition for the positions, they are typically college graduates with training in education, theater, musical theater or a combination of them, according to the group. They direct and perform in the shows, but also get the satisfaction of influencing young lives.
“The energy and enthusiasm of the kids shows. For some, it’s their first experience on stage. This could be their opportunity to interact with people they haven’t met and with whom they can become best friends in future,” Heuchert said.
“A girl in northern Colorado who played a raccoon in “Little Red Riding Hood” in 2002 came back in 2010 wanting to be an assistant director. It was wonderful seeing her help younger kids backstage and help them grow in confidence,” he added.
Heuchert’s thoughts were seconded by his tour partner, Stephen Douglas Thomas, a Navy brat who traveled around the world while growing up.
“I moved every three years, including living outside of Yokosuka Naval Base (where he will co-direct “Beauty Lou and the Country Beast”). I have a sense of the quick friendships (kids on bases) make because they spend only 2 or 3 years in each place. But some of them may have just moved there, so I look for kids at lunch break who are eating alone and encourage them to meet others,” he said.
“Kids on base are not really different than elsewhere, but they spend time at Girls and Boys Clubs and are used to group experiences. They work in groups more readily,” he added.
Actor/directors travel in teams of two, training for several weeks before embarking on their journey, which can last as long as three months at a time. They rehearse the plays and learn teaching strategies, costume basics, and how to pack and unpack costumes and sets, puat up the sets and deal with kids and adults in the local community.
The experience is quite intense, particularly the aspect of being together on the road and depending on each other 24/7, and some actor/directors, whether part of the same team or not, have carried that type of relationship to the next level and gotten married.
Jennifer Wills and Jeremy Cunningham, who will be coming to Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base in August, are one such couple.
Wills, who holds degrees in musical theater and drama, started out as a volunteer with the theater. Though she was more interested in behind-the-scenes work, others suggested she give the actor/director position a try.
Cunningham, who also has a degree in theater, took the more traditional route and auditioned for a job at a regional theater conference, which he described as being “like a big job fair.”
“We are away from home 30 to 40 weeks a year, so we don’t really have a home,” Wills said. “But every week there are different kids with different talents and energy. It is essentially the same show, but the kids make it unique.”
“Military children have a lot of opportunities presented to them, but (Missoula Children’s Theatre) is different. A lot of times what is most rewarding is providing something that is not the norm. That’s when a lot of the magic happens. We love going to bases,” said Cunningham.
“During the workshops (three of which are scheduled for Yokosuka, with a special week of workshop activity planned for Yokota Air Base), we work on developing improvisational skills, makeup, mime. It’s an opportunity to learn acting in general rather than concentrating on the play,” he said.
But it’s the effect the theater experience has on kids that seems to be most important.
“One time there was this kid at a small audition. He was the most enthusiastic and energetic there, so we cast him in the lead role. However, he had special needs, so he had difficulty memorizing lines and struggled throughout the week,” Wills said.
“He had one long monologue and couldn’t get it right. At the actual show, he got mixed up. We thought he would be upset. But when he came offstage he pumped his fist into the air and said, ‘I did it!’ and gave everyone high-fives. He was so proud of himself. He had accomplished something. It’s not what the audience thinks, it’s what the kid thinks of himself,” she said.
And that is what MCT is all about.