• December 26, 2014

Curtain call

Traveling workshop spends week with children teaching acting fundamentals and staging show

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Posted: Friday, August 9, 2013 4:30 am

Lots of benefits are touted for the 60-plus kids onstage at Vive Les Arts Theatre on Saturday afternoon. Their work ethic has to be right at the top of the list.

How else to describe the five days of auditions and rigorous rehearsals that culminate in a 70-minute, costumed, fully staged theatrical production? That’s what the Missoula International Children’s Theatre will present at curtain time tomorrow — 3 p.m. on the workshop’s sixth day.

“The Secret Garden,” one of seven to 10 shows “touring (the U.S.) at any time” according to Missoula International, is a musical written to accommodate 50 to 60 children.

Two “tour actor/directors,” in this case, Amanda Nifong from Mount Airy, N.C., and Emma Merlo, from Killeen, are the official emissaries for the nonprofit program.

Missoula is active in all 50 states and several foreign countries and up to 48 “teams” are on the road each year. A well-oiled theatrical machine, it handles most of the chores for the “presenting organization” — Killeen’s Vive Les Arts — including promotional materials, audition duties, rehearsals, “enrichment workshops” and the performance itself.

Last week found Missoula International at Temple’s Cultural Activities Center, and after Killeen’s matinee, Merlo and Nifong will take their road show to Coppell.

On Tuesday afternoon, Merlo energetically leads her young actors through their paces on the VLA stage. Movement and audience contact are the two main topics and the children, some of whom are Missoula repeat customers, are attentive, even to the point of ignoring the half-dozen moms seated in the audience. Rehearsals are 4½ hours each day, consisting of two 2-hour segments with a 15- to 30-minute snack break between the two sessions. Participants are required to attend the 2-hour audition to be admitted into the program.

After motion activities that take up the entire area of the large proscenium stage, the kids plop down on the floor for a theatrical makeup lesson. Nifong and Merlo apply colorful greasepaint to the children’s faces. Talking points include the proliferation of computer-generated makeup effects in motion pictures, with a special interest shown by the children in the over-the-top, albeit old-fashioned makeup worn by Johnny Depp. Nifong and Merlo, perky to a fault, steer the discussion back to live theater and stage traditions.

During the break, two tweens are in a spirited discussion that reveals a theater-savvy sophistication beyond their years. Their topic: Is the popular, effervescent Kristin Chenoweth as good a singer as the Broadway legend Patti LuPone? Other, younger children are engaged in an impromptu zombie-walk competition, and all of the kids appear to be eager for Saturday’s performance.

Charlotte O’Brien, theater manager at VLA, is effusive in her praise of Missoula’s international enterprises. “It’s really a great program,” she said, citing an “overabundance” of participants for this summer’s two sessions.

Linda Hines of Copperas Cove drives her granddaughters, Tatum Hines, 12, a student at Cove Junior High and Cheyenne Hobbs, 10, who attends Martin Walker Elementary, to and from VLA for the program. It’s Tatum’s sixth time to attend and Cheyenne’s second.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Hines said. “Their self-confidence has improved, and they get to meet a whole different group of kids,” she said, echoing a comment frequently heard from other children’s parents and grandparents.

Just before climbing into her grandmother’s car, Cheyenne Hobbs is looking forward to Saturday’s show and wants to make a couple of things clear: “I used to be shy, and I’m over that.” Looking as earnest as a 10-year-old can, she said, “This is fun — but it’s a lot of work.”

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