In the community

Behind the scenes, under the sea at Ontario theater camp

ONTARIO – An ocean-patterned set stretches across the stage of the Four Rivers Cultural Center. Stuffed fish, tails, and tridents lay in wait as a chant echoes from the darkness:

“Rouse! Pillage! Plunder!”

This year, 60 local kids participated in the Missoula Children’s Theatre summer camp in Ontario, a weeklong experience that culminated in a final performance of “The Little Mermaid” on Saturday, July 16. 

“The kids arrive on Monday morning and audition, then practice every day for a week,” said Jeneen Brown, programs and outreach director at the Four Rivers Cultural Center, where the camp is held. 

In addition to two professional instructors, the international touring theater Missoula Children’s Theatre also brings sets, props, and scripts – everything local communities need to put on a show, save for a cast, accompanist, and space.

“It’s really quite phenomenal that we have this theater in this little tiny town of Ontario,” said Brown, whose own son, now an audio engineer, participated in the program as a child. 

“When else might [the kids] have the opportunity to interact with professional theater students and actors and be on a set like this?” she asked.

On the dimly lit stage of the Meyer McLean Performing Art Theater, Brantlei McFetridge – this year’s prince – emerges from stage left. He dabs, and a crowd of merfolk erupt in applause.

“If you look goofy, that’s okay.”

–Porter DeVore, student actor

Kids come in with a range of acting experience. Some older participants are regulars at theater camps, while others get their first taste of acting on the first day of camp. To facilitate learning in the fast-paced camp, most students have only their lines in the script, or no script at all.

“I was nervous I wasn’t gonna be good enough,” said McFetridge, remembering his initial reaction to getting the part.

“Sometimes the kids come in really shy. Then you give them a role and they’re a completely different kid,” said Abigail Moyers, one of two tour directors from Missoula Children’s Theatre. “The difference between even yesterday and today is wild.”

Moyers, a recent theater graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, said the final show may not be Broadway caliber – but it isn’t meant to be.

“The Missoula Children’s Theatre’s mission statement is teaching life skills through theater,” said Moyers. “It’s to teach the kids how to commit to something, how to express themselves, how to problem solve… and that they have something important to say and deserve to be heard.”

Moyers and her co-instructor, Elena Maddy, direct the show plus three workshops during the week in hopes that students will retain what they’ve learned on and off the stage.

“We’re told to be 20 times bigger and louder than they can be [when teaching],” said Moyers. “If we’re big and loud, they see that they can be too.”

When they’re not busy training and bursting into synchronized song, the kids at camp are just that – kids at camp. They doodle on scripts, trade snacks, and swing from railings while waiting for their parents to pick them up.

An “army of volunteers,” said Brown, also leads other activities for the kids – painting, origami, yoga, even a day at the water park.

In one room, kids wear matching aprons and hats in a Little Mermaid-themed art session. Their masterpieces dry by the wall: a chalky yellow sun over the sea, a bubble-blowing fish, a mermaid with red hair five times the size of her head.

“If you look goofy, that’s okay,” said one camp participant, Porter DeVore, who plays a sea scout with his younger brother Samuel, a seasider. “That means you’re doing it right.”

His favorite thing about acting? 

“You can be whoever you want to be.”

CORRECTION: The music accompanist aiding Missoula Children’s Theatre was from the local community. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Missoula supplied the accompanist. The Enterprise apologizes for the error.

News tip? Contact reporter Cynthia Liu at [email protected]

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