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The Theater Lassos Montana Kids

With the help of some grown-up actors, children in rural and urban settings are getting a taste of life behind the footlights with the touring Missoula Children's Theatre.

IT is a typical spring day in the mountains of western Montana. A thunder-and-hail storm rages outside, followed a couple of hours later by sunny warm weather.

The spirited climate is matched inside an old building just off the main street in Missoula where pioneers once hid from Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce band. There, several dozen exuberant kids and their dynamic adult leaders are rehearsing "The Wizard of Oz."

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Director Jim Caron, a bearded bear of a man, says to nine-year-old Dylan Stroup, "Toto, think doggy! Look at your shoulders, look at your elbows. And another thing - it's not fair for you to bark and have only the first two rows hear it. I want people in the lobby to hear you bark." Mr. Caron "woofs!" a few times to demonstrate.

Caron turns to 12-year-old red-headed Erin Wing, who is playing Dorothy. "Your face is great, but your hands look like dead fish. Also, why do you think they made her from Kansas and not from New York or L.A.?"

Just then, with a full-speed martial arts leap, the cowardly lion (a k a Frances Horn, 14) vaults onstage snarling and roaring, fully into his role. This cracks up the little kids (munchkins and singing flowers) waiting their cue in the front row.

Welcome to the Missoula Children's Theatre, a unique organization with 18,000 cast members and 10 teams of directors that this year will perform in 330 communities across 40 states and in four countries. If those numbers are impressive, consider that each production, from auditions to final bow, will take less than a week and that all the props, costumes, and other stage gear must fit into a little Toyota pickup truck.

The drama began back in the early 1970s when Caron, not long out of graduate school, was on his way to a friend's wedding in Oregon. Waiting for his disabled car to be fixed in Missoula, he tried out for "Man of La Mancha" at the University of Montana and won the role of Sancho. Having fallen in love with the place, he joined the friend who had played Don Quixote to form a theater group for children using adult actors.

At first they were reluctant to use children on stage. ("We were artistes, not baby sitters.") Then, in a musical production of "Hansel and Gretel," they used kids for the first time.

"They were everything we thought they wouldn't be," Caron recalls. "Creative, energetic, delightful, refreshing."

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The company began to get requests for out-of-town performances but found it difficult to take children out of the Missoula schools for long hauls through "Big Sky Country," especially during Montana's notorious winters. So with considerable trepidation they decided to try out the local talent in Miles City, Mont. ("A real cowboy town, not exactly the bastion of American theater.")

"We found about 400 kids waiting for us," Caron says. "This was the first indication to us that there were cities other than Missoula where kids wanted to perform. We saw the looks on those kids' faces, and we knew that this was something really worthwhile."

Since then, the Missoula Children's Theatre has grown into a thriving organization with an annual budget of about $1 million and a $5-million plan to turn an old school building into a performing arts center. There is a community theater group for adults as well as children, a performing-arts camp for youngsters, and a summer academy for older students interested in a theater career. There are also workshops for teachers and an "issues and awareness" program, in which actors help grade-school and high-s chool students understand subjects like mental and physical disabilities, racial tolerance, and drug abuse.

But the main work of the organization is the one-week program in which two-person teams of actordirectors bring a musical to a town, put together a cast of 50 or so on Monday, rehearse four hours a day through the week, and join the children for a dress rehearsal and two performances on Saturday.

The adult professionals take key roles that place them onstage most of the time, just in case a bit of subtle mid-performance direction is needed.

Venues for productions have ranged from state-of-the-art theaters in cities like Chicago to one-room schoolhouses in Alaskan villages where everybody (including the janitor) takes part. Props are mostly screw-together lengths of plastic pipe and colorful banners.

The professional teams (several of them married couples) typically are fresh out of graduate school, and many have double majors in theater and education.

"For a young director, it's fabulous experience," says Caron. "What we don't have, surprisingly, is a lot of out-of-work actors."

One such director is six-year veteran Melanie Buckhouse, who heads the summer program and is also a sixth-grade teacher at the Rattlesnake Middle School in Missoula. She played the straw man in the recent "spring-break day camp" production of "The Wizard of Oz" here. "We come in with no prior ideas about what those kids can do," she says. "And we often see a real change in self-confidence, in self-esteem, and poise. Their teachers see the change, too, especially their language arts teachers." This is oft en true of those who may be hearing-impaired, says Caron, or otherwise labeled "special education kids."

"At the end of a week's time, when they have 300 or 400 people applauding for them, you can see the light bulbs going on over their heads," Caron adds. While some of the organization's alumni and alumnae have gone on to become professional stage and television actors, the "mission of the company is really to develop life skills - communications skills, social skills," says Caron over lunch in a Missoula union hall. They also learn about discipline and working hard toward a worthwhile goal.

Tour teams have gone to Singapore and Guam and are expected to travel to Germany and Japan this coming year. Bilingual actor/directors are being recruited, 440 performances are scheduled for the 1992-93 season (there's a waiting list), and within five years, Caron expects that 30 teams will travel to 1,000 communities and involve 50,000-60,000 youngsters. "It's an exciting time after years in the trenches," he says.

Meanwhile, back at the theater, "F.O.B. Time" is over. (That's a midday "flat on you back" rest break.) Jackets and lunch boxes are piled on the seats as the kids, ages 6 to 16, gather onstage.

"This is the last day before performance," shouts Ms. Buckhouse. "We need your full focus and attention."

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