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Children’s Theater brings ‘Johnny Appleseed’ to Village Arts stage

By Sue Sitter - | Jul 24, 2021

Jessica Hamilton, center left, and Garrett Gagnon, center right, discuss ideas at a rehearsal of Missoula Children’s Theater’s “Johnny Appleseed.” Sue Sitter/PCT

With bright pink and blue panels from a recent play in the background, three eager groups of youngsters sat down on the stage at the Village Arts Center July 19 for their first day of play practice.

Actor-Directors Garrett Gagnon and Jessica Hamilton were in town with the Missoula Children’s Theater.

In one week, Gagnon, Hamilton and the young actors would transform the stage to an orchard for a production of “Johnny Appleseed.” The cast would perform the play July 23 and 24.

On the first day of practice, Hamilton gave the children lessons in movement and following directions. “One, two, three, four, turn around,” she counted as the group marched in place and twirled.

Between instructions, Hamilton and Gagnon discussed strategies for the next steps in the play’s production. To keep the budding actors occupied, Gagnon said, “I have a question for you. The question is, if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, one food – you don’t get to change it when you’re 43 – what food would you eat? Take a moment, chat with your neighbor and think about the answers.”

The children talked excitedly with their group mates. Each moment of play practice had them engaged.

The Missoula Children’s Theater travels the United States, Canada and countries as far away as Japan each year, bringing theater arts to communities large and small. Staffed by actors and theater students from across the country, the traveling theater has made visits to the Rugby area and other North Dakota communities for decades.

“I really like Missoula Children’s Theater,” Rugby parent Kilene McFadden said. “My sister did it in the early 90s when she was little.”

McFadden, who has three children in this year’s production, said she didn’t have the chance to perform with the theater as a child, “but I did theater and stuff in school. When I heard that name, Missoula, I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, a blast from the past.'”

“My kids got involved when we lived in Minot and we had a great time. I love the organization. I think it’s so much fun to give kids the opportunity,” McFadden added.

“We have quite a turnout,” Hamilton said of the Rugby group after play practice. “We get varying numbers throughout the summer but the great thing about our shows is no matter how many kids show up, we can really tailor it to how many kids we have, what age level; we can add groups in and take them out,” Hamilton said of the program’s flexibility. “So, every show’s unique based on what city we’re in. It’ll be really cool to see how it turns out this week.”

Hamilton, who graduated in June with a B.F.A. in musical theater from Central Washington University, joined Missoula Children’s theater in May. She and Gagnon, a Vermont resident and Boston College graduate, will be on tour until August.

Hamilton and Gagnon both wore masks as they worked.

COVID played a role in MCT’s 2021 production schedule, Hamilton said. “We’re taking precautions and it looks like we’re back at it again (for 2021). We have four tour actors out touring this summer and we’re hoping to get more out for the fall as well. We’re just trying to play it by ear and keep everyone safe but also bring in theater to these communities.”

Although Hamilton said she and Gagnon “just got into Rugby last night, so far, it’s really cool to be in a smaller town and to get recommendations from people on what to do and where to eat. The people have been really nice and welcoming so far. We’ve noticed that with North Dakota in general because we’ve spent a couple of other weeks in North Dakota in Minot and Milton. Everyone’s been so great and nice. We really like North Dakota.”

Gagnon said, “I was not expecting all the windmills here. The windmills are cool. There’s nothing to block the wind. There are no mountains or anything, so you can benefit off that natural resource for sure.”

Of the young Rugby actors, Gagnon said, “They’re awesome. They’re immediately grasping material we were throwing their way. We were still in our audition process this morning and we got to teach them the show. They’re starting actual show material, so that’s great. They’re super enthusiastic and a lot of great energy. Their level of expression is through the roof, which is fantastic from the get-go.”

MCT’s presentations of “Johnny Appleseed” at the Village Arts Center are July 23 at 7 p.m. and July 24 at 1 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children.

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