‘Pied Piper’ pulls kids in, creates confidence

Montana troupe breezes into town with a technique that’s turned children into performers all across the country

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photoChildren from Lake Shore Elementary School rehearse the “Pied Piper” on Thursday. After a brief week of preparations, the performances are Saturday.

(/The Columbian)

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If you go

What: “The Pied Piper,” featuring a cast of young students.

When: 3 and 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Lake Shore Elementary School, 9300 N.W. 21st Ave.

Tickets: $7 adults, $2 children.

On the Web:Missoula Children's Theater.

The children’s chorus line belted out the song in near-perfect unison.

“Happiness, happiness, happiness all around,” rang out in high notes, while the singers spread their arms as one.

The kids looked pretty polished in their first full rehearsal. Good thing they’re fast learners -- they had 48 hours until showtime.

The cast of students from Lake Shore Elementary School will perform two shows Saturday of “The Pied Piper,” the classic tale of a rat-catcher who scoops up the town’s children after not getting paid for his pest control services. The production was brought to Lake Shore by the Missoula (Mont.) Children’s Theater, which has a unique way of turning shy kids into stage actors in less than a week.

Once upon a time -- actually, it was 1972 -- the Missoula Children’s Theater was booked to perform “Snow White” in a town hundreds of snow-covered miles away. Instead of carting their young cast across the icy plains, the organizers decided to recruit a fresh crop of kids at their destination.

They needed seven. Four hundred showed up for the audition.

The theater folks figured out a way to quickly find the promising actors in the big crowd. And they got the idea that young students are interested in being on stage even if given very little time to prepare. A concept was born.

Forty years later, MCT says it’s the country’s largest touring children’s theater company. It will visit 1,300 towns this year.

This week, they’re in Vancouver.

Two mothers of Lake Shore students performed in MCT productions when they were little kids. Other parents who had organized the school’s previous, more traditional performances -- the kind where you rehearse a long time -- were no longer around after their children moved on to middle school.

So the moms suggested MCT, said Michelle Eussen, who played a pumpkin in “Cinderella” 27 years ago.

The school’s PTA, supported by donations from local businesses, is paying for MCT’s visit. The young actors aren’t charged, and no school district money is going toward the production, Eussen said. It cost about $2,800 for the week, she said.

On Monday, the students gathered on the school’s small stage for auditions. There was no time to waste -- they had five days until curtain time.

MCT has tailored the audition process to its young actors. They don’t need to read for a part as adults would.

“What can we have these kids do that they already know?” is how Rebecca Klump sums up the process.

She and one other MCT employee, Chris Bellinger, switch off as actor and director each week while traveling with the production. This week it’s Klump’s turn to play the mayor -- the bad guy of the story and the only adult role -- while Bellinger directs the play from the front of the stage.

They brought scripts, costumes, props and know-how -- just add youngsters and audience.

When they first met their cast of 52, Klump and Bellinger had them count, say their name and age, and sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” -- skills in every kid’s repertoire. They gave them one sample line to say. Then they split the students up by the personality they showed in those tests and formed groups -- rats, town kids and leading parts with lots of lines.

And one protagonist without lines. The piper is mute throughout the play, communicating only in gestures and by playing the flute.

“A lot of kids didn’t want to be the Pied Piper, but I like a challenge,” said Marlee Adams, the fifth-grader who will be kidnapping the town’s children on Saturday.

She was “freaking out” when she realized she’d landed the title role, Marlee said.

A play in two days

Cast and directors plunged right in on Monday and the students had learned the first song of the musical production by the end of the afternoon.

MCT has a special system to get young actors to learn pretty much the entire play -- songs, dance moves and lines -- in two days, Klump said.

“We repeat things a lot (as a group),” she said.

She has the kids repeat lines of each song -- line by line, song by song.

“It takes them five minutes max to learn a song,” Klump said. “It still amazes me. I can’t believe they can do this.”

The two actor/directors take each group and teach them their parts separately. And on Thursday they put them all on stage together. They go through it again on Friday, do a dress rehearsal Saturday midday and perform for the crowds that afternoon.

“It doesn’t give them time to get bored,” Klump said with a laugh.

The mute piper agreed.

“Sometimes the pressure is good,” Marlee said.

Although she doesn’t have any lines to learn, she has to master a series of facial expressions and flute melodies to communicate on cue.

“It actually makes it harder,” Marlee said. “But it’s fun to test yourself.”

MCT’s mission is to help young people develop life skills through the performing arts, Klump said.

“We’re not training actors,” she said. “But it really helps kids.”

It’s a very supportive program, she said. Kids build confidence by doing something they didn’t think they were capable of.

Klump said she recently had a boy with autism in her cast, but she didn’t know it until after the end of the week. The boy didn’t talk much at home or school -- one of autism’s symptoms.

“But I had no idea (about his autism),” Klump said. “He was saying all of his lines.”

On Thursday, a slight fourth-grader playing one of the main parts -- the mayor’s son -- spoke in a barely audible whisper on stage.

Bellinger, the director, pulled him aside. He put his hand on the boy’s rib cage and asked him to take a deep breath.

“See how when you breathe, your chest went up?” Bellinger asked the boy. “Now put all that air into that one line.”

The boy could be heard at the back of the cafeteria for the rest of rehearsal.

He stood up straighter, too.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://twitter.com/col_schools.