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GIANT STEPS : Young Actors Learn More Than Beans From Touring Troupe

November 15, 1990|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition

They probably wouldn't eat them on a bet, but this weekend a handful of local kindergarteners will sing and dance their little hearts out in celebration of--get this, Mom--beans. Ah, the power of the stage.

Cast as everything from magic beans to fearsome giants, 50 Orange County children ages 5 to 14 will join professional actors in the Missoula Children's Theatre's touring production of "Jack and the Beanstalk." The show will be presented Saturday at 2 and 4:30 p.m. in the Robert B. Moore Theatre at Orange Coast College.

Now in its 18th year, MCT takes audience participation a giant step forward by letting youngsters work alongside professional actors in a fully staged children's show.

The nonprofit Missoula, Mont.-based company sends 10 two-member teams into communities nationwide equipped with props, costumes, sets and specially adapted scripts that allow local children to play most of the roles, according to Jeff Hall, the group's associate director. (In "Jack and the Beanstalk," for example, actor Terence Kelly will play the magician who sells Jack the beans, and his wife, Angela, will play Jack's mother and the family cow; the balance of the roles will be performed by children.)

According to Hall, when an MCT team arrives in town (under a financial agreement with the booking organization), it first conducts open auditions, attracting as many as 300 potential cast members. The team selects 50 youths for each production, then leads them through a week of rehearsals and dance training before their public debut. Local high school students are recruited as assistant directors, helping out with the technical aspects of the show.

Since 1973, MCT companies have visited hundreds of American cities, as well as Singapore and Guam, and have involved over 150,000 children each year, Hall said. First established in 1970 as a community theater, touring shows spotlighting local children were developed by company co-founder Jim Caron. When a group in far-flung Miles City, Mont., requested a perform ance of the group's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Caron, unwilling to put the Missoula kids who played the dwarfs on the road, sent representatives to cast Miles City children in the roles. Over 100 youngsters auditioned and the pattern has been repeated ever since.

By participating in an MCT production, children gain a comprehensive introduction to theater without a hefty time commitment, Hall explained.

"We get a wide variety of kids in these shows, " he noted. "A lot of them are already active in theater, but others hesitate to get involved because they think it will demand too much time. We offer them a taste of it for a week, as opposed to the usual four to six weeks of rehearsal you need for other shows." The exposure stimulates most youngsters to go on to school or community theater programs, he said.

MCT's corps of professional actors, ages 20 to 40, are drawn from cities across the United States. It's a demanding lifestyle, requiring the artist to work as actor, director, counselor, stage manager and roadie during a rigorous 30-week tour. But to Hall, it's worth the trouble.

"We look for people with strong performance skills who also have a real interest in education," said Hall, adding that many of their teams include elementary and high school teachers and college grads studying for teaching credentials. "It's an ideal opportunity for them because it provides a great laboratory experience in every aspect of the theater.

"As a result, most of our people aren't on what I call the 'fame track,' " he added. "Actors who tour consecutive years get a chance to see these kids grow; they get to see theater programs established in communities where there were none the year before.

"That kind of experience probably won't get you a Broadway role, but artistically, it's very rewarding."

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