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Stars and Stripes Scene, Sunday, July 19, 2009

I met Jack Frost in July. He walked right up to me and said "Hi, I’m Jack Frost." I also saw princesses, talked to a king and heard leprechauns singing.

No, I’m not delusional, just enjoying the backstage magic of a Missoula Children’s Theatre production of "The Princess and the Pea."

Missoula Children’s Theatre brings musical productions every year to more than 1,000 communities, including military installations worldwide.

The Montana-based program sends out teams of two professional directors to each location, armed with scripts, sets, props, costumes and the ability to do the miraculous — take 50 to 60 young actors from auditions to full musical production in six days.

"It was amazing," said one high-schooler after auditions at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. "There were exactly enough parts. No one was told ‘Sorry, you have to go home.’ "

That is by design. Flexible scripts, casting and directors can accommodate varying numbers and age groups. Students from kindergarten to high school can participate, and parts for younger actors require fewer rehearsal hours.

"I’m the king," said a smiling pre-teen. "I love acting. This is my lifelong dream."

The community provides the venue and the actors, giving students K-12 an opportunity to fulfill dreams in a few summer days: Auditions on Monday morning, performances on Saturday.

On Day 2 at Ramstein, MCT directors Erica Zintek and Jeremiah Henriksen were practicing divide and conquer. With the cast split into two groups, they were teaching a musical number. In about 15 minutes, Erica’s group learned words, music and motions.

She assured the cast they’d learn it in no time.

"I promise, this song will be stuck in your head all day," she said.

The group next door moved on to staging, with Jeremiah — calling actors by name — teaching them where to stand and when to move.

By Day 4, scripts were left behind on the floor while the actors belted out their lines, prompted each other when necessary and added a few props into the rehearsal. Some stayed after practice to help assemble the set.

Erica and Jeremiah, like other MCT directors, use their theater experience and performance backgrounds to keep the attention and cooperation of 50-plus show-stoppers-in-the making, teaching them theater basics in the process.

"Which cheeks do you want to show to the audience?" Erica asked the giggling cast, using significant gestures. "These cheeks, or these cheeks?"

Jeremiah said his work with MCT is valuable directing experience.

"And crowd control, or zookeeping, or something," he added good-naturedly. Positive comments and encouragement were the directors’ preferred tools, keeping the action moving and the actors motivated.

The productions get a fair amount of repeat business, judging by participants’ t-shirts. "Jack Frost" had on a shirt from an MCT production of "Robin Hood" in Okinawa.

"I’ve been in three shows," he said, "but this is my first time to be the bad guy. It’s fun."

Someone had a shirt from "Robinson Crusoe," and a few were already sporting "Princess and the Pea" shirts.

MCT scripts are original retellings of these familiar stories, and audiences will find an unexpected hero in "The Princess and the Pea."

Participating communities pay a fee to the nonprofit organization for the program. How much it costs depends on location and travel expenses, said Terri Elander, who handles international public relations for the organization.

Some funding comes from grants and other donations, and MCT was recently added to the Combined Federal Campaign, Terri said.

More about Missoula Children’s Theatre and its performance schedule is available on the Spouse Calls blog and at

And Erica was right. That song is stuck in my head.

Terri Barnes is a military wife and mother of three. She lives and writes in Germany. Spouse Calls appears weekly in Stars and Stripes. Contact Terri at and see the Spouse Calls blog at

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