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Acting out, with confidence

Posted 9/22/15 (Tue)

Acting out, with confidence

By Sydney Glasoe Caraballo
Balancing a two-point rack of white fabric antlers, Kyle Knudson trots onto the stage of giant lime green and navy blue leaves, fern fronds and orange birds of paradise flowers.
The buck plops onto a rock, eyeballs the audience, and asks: “Ever wonder where the buck stops?”
Giggling at his own silliness, the second grader snorts out: “The buck stops here!”
As the crowd chuckles, a crouching tiger played by Morgan Rose leaps up from his hiding place behind the rock. Startled, Knudson’s antlers wobble as he darts from the tiger’s paws and yells, “The buck should have stopped somewhere else!”
Knudson and Rose were among the 43 local children who performed in “The Jungle Book.” The children romped, stomped and stampeded through one week of intense rehearsals to prepare for the two productions performed Saturday. The musical, presented by Missoula Children’s Theatre and sponsored by the Meadowlark Arts Council, was well-worth the endeavor, according to the young actors.
Pre-production, the children take turns waiting for their face makeup while they compare costumes, trade stories and sling their arms around one another as they mug for the camera.
Brooklyn Fortier, who is the head of the 10-person python, Kaa, says this moment – getting in costume and makeup – is her favorite so far.  “And everybody learning how to connect as the snake,” she adds. “It’s all so fun.”
“I get to kill Trenton,” interjects Morgan Nelson about her favorite moment – her mouth-splitting grin showcasing mongoose teeth that will deliver the fatal bite to Trenton Combs, (who is known as “the great cobra,” according to Trenton) during the musical.
“My favorite part is that we get to play with all our friends and stick together as a team,” says Trenton, who plays one of the villains but clearly understands the play’s message of loyalty and courage.
Payton Hanisch, a stampeding elephant in full character, halts mid-gallop, eyes narrowed, and asks, “Are you a journalist? Because I’m going to keep my eye on you.”
One week in, these kids have mastered the delivery of a punch line. And of staying on message.
Tammy Knudson, whose sons Adam and Kyle both performed, tallies off increasing self-confidence, leadership, a respectful and supportive attitude toward others, and the capacity to follow rules set by someone other than a parent as relevant learning lessons the process offers. 
From the moment these kids audition, she says, the lessons begin. The children realize they may not get the big part. “You have more integrity losing graciously than you practice winning,” Knudson says.
The reward with a smaller, supporting role? “They’re learning it takes all of them to have a great show,” Knudson says.
Theea Johnson, who plays a young wolf in the wolf pack, prefers a smaller role. “She told me it scares her to death to have all of the audience’s eyes on her,” says her mother, Tara Johnson. 
Theea, who enjoys rehearsing much more than the actual performance, rattles off the moments that make her time worthwhile. She mentions all the singing, dancing and the live piano music provided by local accompanist Ashley Rindel. She loves her ears and “big, fat tail.” She adores her time spent with other cast members. “They’re my friends, and they stand up for me,” she says, adding that sometimes a cast mate will help her to remember a line.
She may or may not perform again next year.
“It’s still scary!” Theea says, having just finished performing the first production. She is already anticipating the next performance with concern.  But Theea has also learned about courage this week, and her mother sees that trait gaining strength in her young daughter. 
Theea stresses that she would tell anyone else who is scared like her to sign up and perform. “I’d tell them to conquer their fear,” says Theea, echoing both the play’s message and her experience performing.    
Johnson says Theea’s response to this newest experience is a rare and valuable opportunity for her and other local children. “It’s extraordinary in a community as remote as ours, to have two ladies come in who can bridle that energy and have our kids perform in five days.”
Minda Rocha and Breyona Coleman of Missoula Children’s Theatre have travelled through 14 states since May this year to perform productions with children. Their theater company sends out teams that travel through all 50 states, 16 countries and two Canadian provinces and will work with approximately 65,000 children this year.
Coleman, who graduated with a degree in theater last spring from Averett University in Danville, Va., says she loves working with children and watching their self-esteem and confidence blossom through performing. 
“Sometimes people underestimate what kids are capable of,” she says. “We let them know we believe in them. We give them compliments and get them excited and engaged and in the moment. When we fully have their attention, it is unbelievable what they can accomplish.”
Coleman says she witnesses in her job every day how affection, love and direction transform children.
Knudson wasn’t able to witness Adam’s transformation into Buck as he performed because of a prior commitment to chaperone Boy Scouts Saturday in Williston for the Native American Pow Wow competition. She admits it would have made for an easier schedule if sons Adam and Kyle weren’t in the musical last week.
But easier isn’t better, according to Knudson. She only regrets that she couldn’t be two places at once. “Your kids grow up and are gone before you know it, and then you have all the time in the world,” she says. 
Knudson, who literally sports her priorities from head to toe, is wearing her half-marathon training shoes, a Boy Scout Camp Wilderness tee layered under a DCHS Football jacket with a pin of #3 (her son, Troy) and a jean baseball cap bedazzled with rhinestones that say Hockey (for high school graduate and junior hockey player son, Tanner, in Wyoming.) She believes theater, like sports and outdoor activity, is a great outlet for children.
“They get to scream, yell, dance and be silly,” she says, while also being exposed to the bigger life lessons that theater provides. “The production is only a week of commitment, but it gives an opportunity that will last a lifetime.”