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Missoula Children’s Theater comes to Escanaba

R. R. Branstrom | Daily Press Local youth cast in the Missoula Children’s Theater production of “The Pied Piper” rehearse under direction of Eric Schutt, one of two traveling Tour Actor/Directors who are in residency in Escanaba this week. The play will be on Saturday at both 2 and 5 p.m. at the Bonifas Arts Center Theater.

ESCANABA — Missoula Children’s Theater (MCT), a traveling group that’s the largest of its kind, has been giving kids in communities around the world the opportunity to participate in theatrical performances since 1972. At each location MCT visits, they conduct auditions, cast local children, give workshops, hold rehearsals, and put on a play — all in the span of a week.

This week, MCT is occupying the theater of the William Bonifas Arts Center in Escanaba, and 59 local youths between the ages of 5 and 15 have earned roles in the production.

Less than a month ago, Tour Actor/Directors Skyla Conger and Eric Schutt — recent graduates of Arkansas State University and University of Northern Iowa, respectively — flew out to Missoula, Mont. for training. After a series of ten-hour days, they hit the road in a red pickup truck containing all the materials they’ll need during their fast-paced tour. Conger and Schutt’s first destination — immediately before Escanaba — was in Crystal Falls, Mich. As soon as things wrap up in Esky, they’ll be off to the Keweenaw for a week. Next, it’s the East Coast.

And that’s just the schedule for one red truck. MCT has dozens of touring groups — their current staff list of Tour Actor/Directors (TADs for short) is 81 names long. Escanaba and the other places in Conger and Schutt’s circuit will be treated to performances of “The Pied Piper,” but other duos are working on “Treasure Island,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Robin Hood” and more.

Though the Bonifas brings them in the summer, the traveling troupe operates year-round, journeying to wherever they’ve been booked — schools, theatres, community centers, what-have-you.

The Bonifas has been hosting MCT for years. But this year, for the first time, they had to source funding from community donors, whereas in the past grants have made the project doable.

Responsible for making the 2024 Escanaba week possible are the following sponsors: Dragon Studio Designs, LLC: Diane Kribs-Mays; Kenneth & Patricia Gartland Family Fund; Dorothy Kollman; Bay de Noc Choral Society; Escanaba Kiwanis Club;  Pioneer TV and Appliance; Lauree Kramer; Heynssens Selin’s; Massie’s Country Market; Carolyn Bellingar and Nanci Love.

The host location is responsible for providing a residency fee to MCT; space for audition, rehearsals, and performances; and housing for the team. This year, the TADs are staying with a local family.

Local actor Mark Cowman, who previously worked in theatre in Chicago and is active in Players de Noc, worked for MCT as a TAD during the ’99 to 2000 season. Incidentally, the play they did that year was also “The Pied Piper,” so he’s gotten a kick out of hearing the kids rehearse this week.

“Listening to the script, all the words were coming back to me. It’s like, I couldn’t tell you what I had for breakfast, but I was remembering the lines from a song I haven’t sung in 25 years,” Cowman said.

He thanked the sponsors and commented on the benefits of MCT:

“I’m just happy that people see the value of the program, and that the kids enjoy it enough that it’s something they’re able to bring back year after year, because, you know, as a person who’s worked in theater, I just think that the experience that these kids can get out of something like this is invaluable, because it’s such a short time period that. A lot of kids’ families can’t do the extended run of a full rehearsal for months. For some kids, it will be the only theatrical experience they ever get.”

The packed week of residency for TADs Conger and Schutt and rehearsals for the 59 local children and teens comes to a close this Saturday with two performances at the theater of the Bonifas, one at 2 p.m. and another at 5 p.m. Ticket prices are low, and children aged five and get in free. Patrons may register at bonifasarts.org or may purchase tickets at the door, provided seats are still available.

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