Missoula Children's Theatre

Magic Happens When Kids Do Theater


Children in costumes on stage portraying an emperor and his people.
Missoula Children's Theatre's production of The Emperor's New Clothes. Photo by Megan Brown

Missoula Children’s Theatre (MCT) introduces kids around the country to the wonders of performing.  MCT’s little red truck arrives and is fully loaded: from script to costumes to sets. The only thing they need is the cast—which they find in the local children. One week later, these kids come together and perform an original 60-minute musical production for their community. This public art performance does something magical not just for the children but for their parents, teachers and neighbors. MCT Executive Drector Michael McGill takes us through how the company turns community into art.

Children in black tee-shirts dancing around.

Children performing at Missoula Children's Theatre's Performing Arts Camp. Photo by Megan Brown

(Music up)

Male Voice: We drive into town and our truck’s loaded down with costumes, and sets and props, the props, the make-up—everything you need to put on a musical production. And the kids don’t have to bring anything. The only thing we ask them to bring is a positive attitude. And then we ask them to do the impossible. We ask them to do it in six days.

Female Voice: Six days!

Jo Reed:  You just heard an excerpt from the film The Little Red Truck—a documentary about the Missoula’s Children’s Theatre. Welcome to NEA Arts Online. I’m Josephine Reed.

Since 1970, the Missoula Children’s Theatre or MCT has been in the business of bringing theatre to kids across the country.  As you heard, they bring the play, the costumes, the staging, the props, and the expertise. What’s different and it’s a big difference is that the cast is made up of kids in the community who work with two MCT tour actor/directors.  And yes, you heard correctly, the kids have six days to learn the script, the music, the staging and the cues. And then, they put on a show for their community.  The mission of MCT is to give kids an immersive experience in theater and the opportunity to shine in public as they work together to deliver a performance. That hasn’t changed throughout the years, but it has become more urgent as more and more schools are cutting arts programming.  Many students, particularly those in rural areas, have never had any experience with theater. Recognizing this, and because MCT was born in a small city in the very large state of Montana, it has always had a singular focus on rural areas. MCT’s executive director Michael McGill explains.


Michael McGill: We do have a real commitment for the rural areas, and I’ll tell you, it has a lot to do with, I think, some fairness issues, because if you grow up in a city, it seems like all the resources are pooled around those places, and you have every opportunity in the world. Well, the idea of the Missoula Children’s Theatre is that we take those resources to you. We have a delivery system. You don’t have to have any professional training, you don’t have to know how to sew costumes, and you don’t have to know how to design a set. All you need to do is ask us to come there and we work-- all we don’t have is the cast. So, we cast between fifty and sixty young people in each town and take them through that rehearsal process of four hours a day until it culminates in the musical. And, from that, we feel like they’re learning things that they wouldn’t have a chance to learn otherwise. There’s a lot of instruction in mathematics and there’s a lot of instruction in other things that are very, very important, but it seems like instruction in the arts is not as prevalent as it maybe once was, and we want to be that vehicle. And, we have a delivery system. We put everything into a little red truck and we drive across the country and make it happen.

Jo Reed:  How they make this theater residency happen is both complicated and simple…as well as extraordinary.  A town extends an invitation to MCT, and of course a certain amount of pre-planning by the town is in order….a call for kids to audition, arranging for a venue, an accompanist.  But then the day arrives when the little red truck comes into town

Michael McGill: Two people come into a town on a Sunday. They meet the town representative, on Monday, they start right away with their auditions. We have two hours to figure out exactly who’s going to be in that show. There may be a lot of kids that want to be in the show. What we really end up doing is we really want to make the audition process as fun as we can because then even if that’s the only thing they ended up doing, it was okay, and we don’t want them to feel that they didn’t get into the show they were not a good actor or something like that. It has a lot more to do with just having parts that are right for the people that are there. But, we’re not necessarily looking for just the kids that stand out the most as being the brightest and the loudest. We’re also looking for the kids that this would be good for. They look a little bit shy, maybe they should be in that program because that would do a lot for them, because remember the mission is not to make the actors and actresses out of them. It’s to give them skills that maybe they don’t have access to and they need an outlet to show what they can do and to be proud of it.


Michael McGill:  And, then the second session on Monday, they start rehearsing with some of the children with larger lines-- more lines. And, they do that over the course of the week, four hours a day, until those kids are practiced to the limit, and you would be amazed, and I am continually, by what happens when you trust that those young people can do something that seems very difficult, to take an hour-long musical and actually memorize all those lines in that amount of time. And, so it’s like an amazing thing, and we aim at that amazement at the end of the week, when the parent says, “Holy smokes, what happened here? My child barely will open their mouth in public, and now they’re singing and dancing in public, and you did it in a week? This is incredible.” And, of course, that’s the reaction we need in order to get our mission to work. We need that child to get that feedback that says, “You did something special, and I was amazed.” What comes from that is incredible, and that’s where they fill up. It’s like medicine to a kid. They fill up and they say, “Okay, all right, I did that and that was important. What else can I do?”

Jo Reed:  Like so many success story, MCT discovered this method of bringing theater to kids as a result of hard work, flexible and innovative thinking, and a certain amount of serendipity.

Michael McGill: In 1970, Jim Caron was doing children’s theater in the Missoula area, and he was doing children’s theater for children, which that’s kind of the crux of this issue here. It’s like for as opposed to with, because when it was for, it was not as popular. They were doing children’s tales and they were having audience members come and watch and thrill to that. But, there was one time when they were doing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that a town clear across the state, Miles City, wanted to do Snow White, and they wanted it to come there. And, so Jim was like, “Well, I’m not going to brave winter roads with seven dwarfs, which are children. I wonder if I could cast seven children in Miles City.” So, he went over there and when he walked into the gymnasium that had been-- it had been advertised that he would be looking for some actors. Well, the gymnasium was full of young actors that wanted to be one of those dwarfs. So, what he found in that situation was, “Wow, this is something that really has some power. They don’t want to just see this story done by other people, for them. They want us to work with their children to tell the story together, and as a community effort to work together.” And, I think it has such power. That’s how it started.

Jo Reed:  MCT not only provides a unique experience in theater for kids.  They are giving kids a chance to shine in public, in front of their family, friends and neighbors— a real rarity for kids who aren’t athletes.

Michael McGill: Oh, that is really-- you are-- you hit the nail on the head there, because when they actually have that happen-- let’s say you get an A on a math test or something. Well, your mom knows and your dad knows and oh, a few people know, their teacher knows, but it wasn’t a community-wide public thing that happened to you. In this situation, the next time they walk through the line of the grocery store, the person checking them out says, “I saw you in the play, you were great.” Well, what’s that do to a kid? It makes them full and feel valued. When those kids get that feedback. We’re not trying to make any little actors and actresses. That happens, that’s good, but we’re just trying to impact some skills to those young people, some life skills that they can use no matter what they do. I don’t know if they want to be a doctor or a plumber or, I don’t know what they want to do. But, they need to learn how to do something that makes them feel like they can work with other people, that they can have the courage to try and to do our project, it takes courage. And, at the end of that, you know what you end up with, is you end up with a wonderful feedback and that’s that applause. And, from that, those kids end up feeling like, “Wow, I did something important.”

 Jo Reed:  Although MCT brings a great deal in that little red truck of theirs, they are dependent on community involvement for the show to be successful. It’s a collaboration in every sense of the word.

Michael McGill:  When those communities ask us come, then we send two tour actor directors in one of those little red trucks to the community, and they work together in order to make the whole thing happen, because we can’t bring everything. We don’t know where we could hold the show, we don’t know where we could rehearse, we don’t know-- I mean, they know who to put the posters up with, I mean, just all the things that the community needs to pull together to do it. And, I think that’s another reason that it really works, because it’s not something that we just come in and say, “We’re going to-- just sit back, we’re going to do this whole thing.” We say, “You and I, your community and us, are going to do this together and make this work,” and that takes some effort on both sides. And, from that, we end up with something that’s really quite magical.

Jo Reed:  Touring throughout the country, MCT works with some 65,000 kids a year who perform in the community play. Additionally, they teach theater workshops to some 150,000 kids in underserved areas.   And for more than twenty years, they’ve been bringing their theater residencies to military bases around the world.

Michael McGill: We are so proud of our work with the military because it is truly one of those areas that lacks access. There’s very few Air Force and Navy and Army bases around the world that actually have this kind of outlet, if it isn’t for us. We go to many, many of them. And, what it means to those communities, it’s really interesting to me because they get reposted about every two years or so in their military service, and those families are uprooted from Turkey and they’re moved the UK, and in that situation, they also leave all their friends. Well, here comes this program that they actually participated in in Turkey and now it’s coming to the UK, and so they go, “Oh, I know what that is,” and they participate in that and they make new friends, and they make-- their lives come back together in a way that has a familiarity. And, again, we’re working with life skills, and it’s also-- we had a friend who was a Major General in the Air Force one time, was telling me that he really felt, as a base commander, that it drew his community together because all of the sudden, also that-- those families would say, “Oh, can we carpool together to get our kids there?” and all of the sudden, they’re making new friends based on this communal kind of a gathering. That’s important to have those things in military communities, because they do, they get uprooted and moved around so much that they need something constant.

Jo Reed:  And communities in general benefit from MCT residencies.  Something happens when people come together to see their children performing publically right in their neighborhoods.

Michael McGill: What the community at large probably gains from MCT has a lot to do with pulling the community together. It seems like there’s less and less things that are done as a community and there’s more and more things that are done through screens. And, I personally think that we’re losing something there. I think that the communities need to come together and celebrate their children. They need to come together and celebrate their town. And, by having any particular name of a town you want to pick say, “We put on this play,” because they did. They had to do most of it. It’s not Missoula Children’s Theatre does Show White. It is Missoula Children’s Theatre and Billings, Montana do Snow White, and it really is a combination. So, they have a piece of it. They have ownership, and they supplied the piano player and they supplied a lot of things that made this happen. So, it’s really important that when that comes together, those people actually feel like they have pride in their town and in themselves and it’s, “We’re helping with that.”  We have had situations where we were in a town, say, that just had a terrible forest fire or had other tragedies happen, and it was welcomed as a way to draw together the community, and I think that that happens. I also have been in situations where the community was in some distress between different rival pieces of the demographics of that. But, what I notice is that when it’s about the kids and when they’re sitting in that audience watching what their kids are doing, no matter where they come from, it draws them together, and none of their differences matter. It’s inspiring, actually, to watch, and I think that’s-- communication and community are a huge byproduct of what we do.

Jo Reed:  And Michael McGill also believes MCT is helping to teach the kids to be good neighbors and good citizens.

Michael McGill: I do think that it opens the door for civic engagement. I think that these young people, by working together .  And, by making those friendships and making those connections and learning teamwork. They get out there and do something, and do something important. I think the current generation that’s coming up is hungry for that. They want to participate, and I think we are helping that.

Jo Reed:  That was Michael McGill executive director of Missoula Children’s Theatre. Find out more about them about MCT-INC.org.  

My thanks to Tree & Sky Media Arts for allowing us to use excerpts from The Little Red Truck.

For NEA Arts Online, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.