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May 3, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
The room is full of children acting as animals including squirrels, foxes and birds. This Saturday, they will take the stage of Jesse Auditorium to perform The Secret Garden after having only five days to build the performance from scratch. The task is intense; 51 children, ranging in age from 5 years old to 18 years old, must learn, practice and perform a play that they started learning on Monday.
When people think of this many children attempting to pull something like this off, they might expect complete chaos. With Missoula Children’s Theatre, it’s anything but.
Monday: The week begins with a two-hour audition. The directors have the children say their names and ages with excitement, anger and drama. Then, they will say a few lines, sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and demonstrate some dance moves. After a brief break, the directors announce who received which parts and immediately start rehearsing with the older children who have bigger parts.
Tuesday: The second day is a four-hour rehearsal, with a 30-minute break. The directors divide the children by roles and run through the script.
Wednesday: All the children come together and begin rehearsing the entire play, with music included.
Thursday and Friday: More rehearsing with run-throughs of the entire show. By Friday, the group will have had 25 hours of practice.
Saturday: The performance.
WHERE: Jesse Auditorium
WHEN: Saturday at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
COST: $7 for children;
$12 for adults
Missoula Children’s Theatre is a group from Missoula, Mont., that has been creating one-week plays since its 1972 performance of Snow White. The group has been coming to Columbia since 1997 and has continued to have a steady group of participants throughout the years. Nathan Anderson, the assistant director of the University Concert Series, thinks Missoula presents an out of the ordinary opportunity for cities such as Columbia where there are a lot of families and young adults.
The second day of practice for The Secret Garden took place in Stotler Lounge, which is considerably smaller than the stage at Jesse Auditorium. Shirnest Tolbert, one of the directors, reminded the children to keep that in mind as they practiced one of the musical scenes that involves a lot of dancing and moving around. She also taught the children one of the first songs in the show. The children listened to her in awe and were able to quickly learn their lines with energy and enthusiasm that’s hard to naturally find in anyone other than young children.
The two older actors playing humans stared at their scripts to practice while the younger children, who played animals, had to repeat their lines after hearing them read by an assistant. Showing extreme patience, Tolbert worked with the children to master achieving the perfect amount of emotion in their voices. While this is a skill many actors would train for years to master, these children had a total of 25 hours to learn this skill and make it close to perfect.
Having sets and costumes already made for the performance also helps the group to be able to have an impressive show with limited rehearsals. Tolbert describes the set for The Secret Garden as red-colored with a boat, garden and manor house.
Despite the rush of the week, families of Columbia return to participate in this fast form of theater. Tolbert thinks that it’s the excitement of participating in a play that keeps kids coming back. “I think they have fun with it,” she says. “To them, Missoula week is equal to Christmas.”
Tolbert admits she was at first skeptical about creating an entire show in one week, but over time she’s mastered what it takes to make the performance work. Although the children were eager to learn their lines at the first practice on Monday, only one child knew all of his lines, making it hard envision a beautiful outcome for this secret garden. But, Tolbert insists that in the end, the play always works out.