In character: Stuttgart children learn acting, life skills with Missoula Children’s Theatre

It takes about six weeks on Broadway to prepare for a theatrical production.
With the Missoula Children’s Theatre, it takes less than one.
Sixty children in U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart performed “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” with MCT April 30, just 5 days after they auditioned — an impressive feat for children who still have homework to do.

But their best accomplishment was learning skills such as confidence and teamwork, which will last long after the show is over, according to Erik Heuchert, one of two show directors on the MCT European tour.

This is part of the MCT mission: “the development of life skills in children through participation in the performing arts,” according to the official website.
“Using the arts helps them socially to interact with each other,” Heuchert said. “They’ve gained not just social interaction, but friendship and trust … a sense of accomplishment.”

The visit to USAG Stuttgart, sponsored by Child, Youth and School Services, was only one stop of a 30- installation tour which was contracted by the Department of the Army.

The European leg of the tour includes USAG Kaiserslautern, Mannheim, Schweinfurt, Stuttgart, Heidelberg and Wiesbaden.

During the rehearsals — which can last up to four hours per day —  children in kindergarten through 12th grade memorize lines, cues and dance moves. “We’re blown away with how quickly they’re able to absorb it,” Heuchert said.
In the process, they learn the importance of commitment and dedication, he added. “A lot of what they’ve accomplished here shows them that they can accomplish anything in life.”

Depending on their age and acting ability, the children were cast in a variety of roles, from a swarm of bats to Snow White and the wicked Queen.
Even the auditions offered opportunities for growth. 

“You learn to show people what you’ve got in a very short amount of time,” said Bekah Church, 15, who played the Queen. “You have to tap into your potential immediately.”

For children who had previously participated in MCT, including Church, the production was an opportunity for them to hone their theatrical skills.
But for others, like 12-year-old Gabi Rutan, “Snow White” provided a first-time acting experience.

“I always wanted to act in the past, but I never had the chance to,” said Rutan, a Black Forest Creature in the show.
Trying out for MCT is a great way to get introduced to acting because everyone is assigned a role, she added.

 “You actually have people teaching you how to do it correctly,” she said.
Rutan plans to use her new skills to try out for larger productions in the future, like those at the Kelley Theatre. “You need the experience,” she said. “It’s harder than I thought it would be, but it’s still fun, in that working with other people can be a really good experience.”

Children who were not cast as characters were assigned the role of assistant directors: a hefty job that entailed helping characters learn lines and cues and working backstage.

It’s an important job, said Joe Nunez, 11, one of the assistant directors for the Stuttgart show. “If you didn’t have somebody to teach you or to guide you, you would just be completely lost,” he said.

Nunez has acted in three MCT shows before, but this is the first time he has been working off stage. “I like the fact that I might not have to be in it, but I’m still learning,” he said.

MCT was founded in the 1970s in Missoula, Montana, and became famous for casting local children in shows wherever the group performed. Today, MCT brings week-long acting projects to children in all 50 states and in military bases and international schools in 17 countries. MCT provides two tour directors, costumes and sets, and the show locations provide the actors.
In each residency week, MCT show director Calida Davis said she sees children transform in just five days.

“Every week you can see how it pays off,” she said. “You kind of see somebody who grows a little bit or who didn’t think they could do it, and they can.”
She hopes the children will continue to achieve their goals after the show is over.
“I hope that they would think ‘I can do anything: I did a play in five days. Anything is possible,’” she said.