Written by Kathleen Goodwin

Some know it as Missoula Children’s Theatre, some as Missoula Community Theatre. Some recognize it from the red trucks, and others from the distinctive building in downtown Missoula. Regardless of where you know them from, MCT Inc., has been an integral part of Missoula’s arts and theatre scene for decades. Each season, devoted volunteers, passionate staff members, and the supportive Missoula locals come together to support individuals, friends, family and community members alike. Terri Elander, the International & Public Relations Director at MCT, sat down with Destination Missoula to discuss the foundation of the organization, the motors that keep this impressive operation rolling, and the importance of play.

The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee.Photo by A2 Photography

“What we do, for the most part, is produce plays. But that’s not the end of the story. In front of and behind the curtain is all the effort, talent and science that creates the magic. The math needed for patterns and lighting design and set building. It requires a great deal of professional training and eyes and elbow grease, and it’s just ridiculously satisfying. When lights go out in businesses around town, those on the MCT stage are coming on. In a given week, especially in the summer when our touring teams are traveling, we can have teams of Tour Actor/Directors (TADs) in 12 time zones at once,” Terri explains.

It takes a lot of people, a lot of passion, and a lot of dedication to produce these plays. About 50 people work at the MCT building as a part of the home staff, not including the traveling TADs, which usually falls around 80-90 more employees. “Many of the people who work here began as a volunteer, as people who tried out for a show and fell in love with being in the shows or fell in love with the mission. For me, I found potential in myself that I didn’t know was there, and I found it in my late 20s, which is what kids find out when they are cast in the show as Cinderella or even a mouse. Someone thought I could do this. Our community theatre does the same thing for people of all ages.”

Now, some of you might be asking yourselves the following questions: what exactly is MCT? Is it a community theatre or children’s theatre? And what is the deal with the red trucks? Understandably, MCT can be a bit of a confusing lot to take in. Unlike many theatres, MCT is dynamic, multi-faceted, and its reach extends way beyond the borders of Missoula, Montana.

Hercules. Photo by A2 Photography

“In some ways, MCT is a very simple company. We have a children’s program locally and on the road and we have a local community theatre, and that may sound simple enough. But we are so much more than theatre,” Terri explains. It is true. Simple in concept but complex in execution, MCT is so much more than a community theatre. Most community theatres impact the local community by putting on productions, and while the lasting impact of the creative arts is immeasurable, the community theatre usually exists solely within the community in which is resides. MCT, however, is not that kind of company. The international children’s tour is an entirely unique facet to the theatre, and it takes MCT’s influence and spreads it all across the globe. In the present day, MCT hosts camps and children’s plays and fundraisers and full-scale community theatre productions, as well as touring across North America and around the world spreading the love of theatre near and far. It started, however, simply enough: with a man and a van, and the journey is as whimsical as it was fateful.

“We’re sitting here today because a Volkswagen van broke down,” Terri explains to me one bright day in the MCT lobby. “Peace signs, the whole deal. Because in 1970 Jim Caron was driving out to Oregon from Chicago for a friend’s wedding, and his van broke down just outside of Missoula. While it was getting fixed, he was hanging out in town for a couple of days and saw an audition poster for the University of Montana’s Man of La Mancha and thought, ‘What do I have to lose? I’m between jobs. I’m an actor.’ He got the part of “Sancho” and became fast friends with the man playing “Don Quixote,” Don Collins, who was from Missoula.” The pair decided to keep working together with theatre and started organizing plays. “They built this little makeshift company of the two of them, and they found they were having some success and people were coming. As time went on they started doing more and more plays, and communities outside of Missoula would ask for them to bring the show into their community.”

Perhaps the most significant shift in the company occurred when they started introducing children into the productions, starting with Hansel and Gretel. “They found the kids were really inventive and fun and quick, so they started introducing more kids in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the dwarfs were all kids. Then in February they were asked to bring Snow White to Miles City about 400 miles away. They did not want to take kids with them all that way, so they decided to see if there were seven kids in Miles City they could recruit to be in the show. So they advertised and got to the gym and there were hundreds of kids for the seven roles in this 197os cowboy town. They weren’t sure what to expect, so that was an “a-ha” moment; there is an interest in theatre in small towns. And that was the birth of the tour.”

MCT Performing Arts Camp. Photo by A2 Photography

During 2018-2019, MCT toured to over 1000 communities in North America and overseas. The tour includes teams of two actors/directors (TADs) who work with schools, performing arts centers, United States military bases, parks and recreation programs, international schools, and civic organizations in small towns to major cities teaching musical theatre to kids. Each tour location represents 50-60 students who are cast on a Monday, rehearse throughout the week and perform on Friday or Saturday. “It all started with servicing rural Montana, and it grew organically through contacts and the schools, art councils, and conferences,” Terri explains. “MCT’s mission is the development of life skills through participation in the performing arts. We want to get out and serve these kids; there are many for whom MCT is their only artistic outlet of the year. The majority of communities present MCT annually or every other year.”

MCT grew first out of the children’s theatre and the tour, followed by the birth of the community theatre, which had its first full “season” in 1977. Each year, the community theatre produces five full-scale performances, featuring local actors, directors, costume designers, set designers, choreographers, and musicians.

Calendar Girls. Photo by A2 Photography

“Anyone interested [in auditioning] can give it a try. The process can be really fun, while providing insight to the director for casting the show. There are amazing performers who are terrified to audition, and those who love it. Some are happy to be in the chorus and others who strive for the lead roles. The artistic staff accesses the talent pool by having people read from the script, perform dance steps and sing from the score for musicals to determine who is best-suited for the available roles. It’s a kind process, really. We don’t make people do things that would be uncomfortable. At the end of that day they will have some people return for call backs. If someone isn’t called back, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are not in the show. It just means they most likely aren’t considered for a specific lead. It gets more competitive in call backs, for sure. At the conclusion, the artistic staff meets to compare notes and they cast the show.”

Nothing short of real dedication goes into each production. The actors are not professionals. In fact, they are members of the community: stay at home parents, doctors, lawyers, waitresses, nurses, counselors. Everything you can think of, and they spend their nights and weekends in the theatre, rehearsing to put on a production for the community. “At first, they will rehearse in the evenings, 3 hours a night, 3-4 times a week for a few weeks. As opening night approaches, the rehearsal schedule gets more intense.  Everyone’s commitment is critical for the show’s success, so it’s truly a gift that the actors and tech crew give to our community.” The end result is a 2 or 3-week run of public performances to enjoy.

Elf! The Musical. Photo by A2 Photography

“Theatre is one of these great activities where you don’t divide by gender or grade level; yet it’s still a team. One of my MCT colleagues, along with his wife (a full-time school teacher) and their two daughters (one in high school and one in middle school) were all in the Missoula Community Theatre production of The Little Mermaid. They basically dedicated nearly three months of their time to share that experience with each other and the entire community. And they had a blast being together on stage,” Terri shares.

The goals are unique to each actor. Some want lead roles, and others are content being in the chorus. Some come back time and time again and others might only audition a time or two. For the children, community theatre represents a type of graduation, Terri says. “For local kids, their aspiration is to graduate to the community theatre. They’ve done the children’s shows, they’ve done the K-12 program or camps, and then they get a taste of community theatre—it is more challenging, and the investment is greater, and the end result is very satisfying. There are more involved technical aspects, costumes, and a longer run. We strive to broaden our audience base who come to enjoy good theatre, even when they don’t have a family member in the show.”

As it turns out, a lot of work goes into “play.” In a community the size of Missoula, MCT makes a huge splash in terms of its active volunteer base. Last year, about 650 volunteers gave their time to the mission of the organization, which equates to about 1% of Missoula’s population. In addition to volunteering in the production, the Missoula community has been integral in the success of MCT locally. The building, located just off Broadway in downtown Missoula, was built in the old Central School that lay dormant for years. Thanks to the support of the community and MCT’s Capital Campaign, the old school was renovated; the administrative offices moved in during October 1993 and the theatre celebrated its grand opening in 1998.  The building is known as the MCT Center for the Performing Arts.  “The building is whimsical, bright, playful and unpretentious, which fits our company’s style. MCT is a welcoming, fun place for people of all ages to gather. It’s been a great space for us.”

Johnny Appleseed. Photo by A2 Photography

Missoula is an arts town, so it is no surprise that the community comes out performance after performance to support the local theatre.

“The community through the years has supported us by buying tickets to the shows, volunteering on our board, helping backstage, working the lights, donating to the building campaign, and the list goes on,” Terri tells me. “Missoula has a lot of nonprofits, but people come here. It’s been wonderful to have people who develop an ownership and a kinship to this company because they know they’ve helped make it what it is. When people leave Missoula, they take their feelings about MCT with them.  They may tell their niece who is a teacher about us and we get a call to bring the tour to her school. Word of mouth has been huge, and we are constantly connecting with people in new areas.”

And that love spreads far and wide, starting in Missoula at MCT Center for the Performing Arts and radiating outward. It is hard work, but the staff keeps up their drive and motivation through what Terri calls “love letters” from people whose lives have been impacted by their work.

Newsies. Photo by Shelby Art

“Every week at our staff meetings, at the end of the meeting, someone reads a love letter from an email, a Facebook post, a typed or even hand-written letters. Often times people cry, because it’s so touching to know that your work matters. I often say that it’s hard work making fun. Our staff is phenomenal in their passion for the work, their expertise and commitment to doing good work. Knowing that what we do makes a difference to people working with one another, transcending barriers of race, language or economics is fantastic. Simply put, I can’t imagine doing anything more satisfying.”

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo by A2 Photography

The beauty in community theatre lies in the fact that it is, well, community oriented. Shows put on by members of the community for members of the community to enjoy. MCT is far from simple. Between the impressive tour schedule to summer camps and children’s classes all the way to full-scale community theatre productions, MCT strives to bring fun and play to all ages of people, and to spread the importance of the arts near and far.

“It is wonderful to showcase our friends and neighbors to other friends and neighbors, and then they want to come back or get season tickets. It’s amazing to see what people can do when they come together with a common goal. We build community through the creative endeavor of doing plays. You can go rent a movie, see it 1000 times and each time you see it, the exact same thing is going to happen. When you come and bring your grandchildren and your children and your neighbors to see The Little Mermaid and your second-grade teacher is on the stage, the performance is unique from the night before, which is the beauty of live theatre. It is so magical because of that. Tomorrow, that actress may sing even a bit louder or she may hit a note she didn’t hit tonight, or he may miss an entrance, and someone is covering for him; it is so organic and powerful to see people’s commitment brought to life like that. You don’t view it from your living room. You are in the room where it happens, with the lights, costumes, sound, laughter, and then you—the audience—get to say thank you for that experience. With applause. The arts are for everyone and a part of our daily lives. People will say, ‘My mailman was hilarious in that show!’ or ‘I never knew my teacher was so funny.’ MCT builds community through the creative process; where people can be a part of something greater than themselves.”