Traveling children's theater group uses play for life lessons
July 21, 2011
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. - About 25 children danced across the stage Friday at McGill Training Center, singing a song about the fate of Maid Marian, who is held captive in a castle.
The young performers were rehearsing a scene from "Robin Hood," a musical about England's most fabled outlaw who steals from the rich and gives to the poor.
The musical, which starred more than 50 Fort Meade youths in two shows performed Saturday at McGill Training Center, was produced by the Missoula Children's Theatre International Tour Project in collaboration with Fort Meade's Schools of Knowledge, Inspiration, Exploration & Skills Unlimited program.
"Parents want Missoula to come back to Fort Meade as soon as possible," said Elizabeth Lombardo, director of SKIES. "The kids loved it. It was a neat experience for them. They became attached to the directors and made new friendships."
Missoula, which performed its last production at Fort Meade in 2005, returned to the installation through the new Army program "Performances, Recitals, Orchestration, Plays and Stagecraft," also known as PROPS.
PROPS provides funding for performing arts programs for military children ages 6 to 18. Although Missoula has partnered with military installations in the past, the organization recently entered a contract with PROPS that will bring theatrical productions to installations on a regular basis.
Lucy Braid, 20, a musical theater major at New York University, and Gage Steenhagen, 21, a drama major at Clark University in Dubuque, Iowa, direct and also perform in "Robin Hood." The two college students are taking the production to community centers, summer camps and military installations in eight cities.
Missoula provides the costumes, props, makeup, and sound and lighting equipment for all the performances.
After arriving at Fort Meade on July 11, Braid and Steenhagen conducted morning auditions. All of the children who tried out made the cast. Four days of rehearsals began July 12 in two-hour blocks held twice a day. The dress rehearsal, complete with costumes and props, was held one hour before the first show on Saturday afternoon.
In his first lead role, Josh Crane was cast as Robin Hood.
"This has been so much fun; I get to work out with the cast," said Josh, 16. "I really wanted this part."
A small group of parents took in Friday's rehearsal, filled with pride as they watched their children portray the fabled list of characters, which included horsemen, aristocrats and guards, as well as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin's band of Merry Men and Prince John.
"I think it's going pretty well," said Regina Strong, wife of Sgt. 1st Class Terry Strong of First Army Division East. "I'm pretty impressed. There are only two directors and yet they got all of the kids to know their parts in just five days."
The production may provide a gateway for the young performers, said Strong, whose sons, Terrell, 12, and Kendall, 6, were cast as a Merry Man and a skunk, respectively.
"They like it and say it's fun," Strong said. "Maybe they'll want to get interested in acting or music."
Missoula's mission is to use the theatrical arts to help young people, age six to 18, develop real-life skills.
"It gives them confidence and teaches them discipline," Braid said. "They need to cooperate and work as a team, so we talk about the importance of focus and commitment. You can get so much more done if you follow directions."
Missoula's production of "Robin Hood" teaches an important moral lesson -- not to judge a book by its cover, said Steenhagen.
Founded in 1970 in Montana, Missoula's Children's Theatre is the largest touring children's theater program in the country. Michael McGill, the group's executive director, created six musicals that are currently touring with 48 two-member teams of Missoula actors/directors. The teams undergo two weeks of intensive training before they disburse to visit 50 states, two Canadian territories, four Canadian provinces and 16 countries during the summer and school year.
In addition to the rehearsals, Braid and Steenhagen led workshops on theatrical makeup, how to be a mime and how to develop the dramatic skills to be an actor.
Rebekah Mervin, 17, who was cast as Maid Marian, said although her character is not very smart and is infatuated with Robin Hood, she planned to bring plenty of charisma to the role.
"I just always loved acting ... there is something magical about it," said Rebekah, who is home-schooled. "I love being in character and being able to be different people and be expressive."
Adrienne Stevens, 14, a sophomore at Meade High School, has appeared in four Missoula productions at other military installations.
"They offer you the ability to be like artists," she said. "It's just really fun. I just like acting, singing and dancing."
Braid and Steenhagen's next stop will be a local community theater in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Their goal, said Steenhagen, is to instill in the young performers a love for theater.
"The theater is a great outlet and needs young, fresh people," he said. "We hope it gives them confidence and new ideas about who they are as people, and to grow."