Emma Merlo prances around the old school room, hands held to her chin, fingers wiggling as she emulates a raccoon whose short, stubby arms can’t quite extend into the graceful lines of a ballerina.

The 21-year-old darts in and out of the forest backdrops, following her new coworkers as she practices the raccoon ballet scene in “Red Riding Hood,” the musical she will soon teach to hundreds of eager children around the country.

“Sometimes we’ll act like we don’t know what’s going on,” Merlo said. “We’ll pretend to be the little raccoon who has no idea where he’s going because we’ll have to direct him on stage.”

Early Thursday morning, she and her tour partner will pull out of the Missoula Children’s Theatre parking lot in a red Ford F-150 bound for Tennessee. There, she will have six days to cast more than 50 children, teach them their steps and lines and execute an hourlong performance for the community.

Then she’ll drive to Georgia and do it all over again. Next comes Alabama. After that, she’ll head north to Wisconsin, Michigan and Kentucky before making the 2,000-mile trip back to Missoula, truck bed stuffed to the brim with props, costumes, scripts and backdrops.

***

Merlo is one of 94 tour directors who will travel across the United States and overseas, as far away as U.S. military bases in South Korea and Turkey, this summer on Missoula Children’s Theatre’s international tour. After two weeks of training, pairs of tour directors embark on a three-month journey over mountains, plains and seas to communities filled with children eager to learn the art of stage performance in a single fast-paced week.

“We grew out of rural Montana, so certainly the appeal is to provide performing arts to communities who have had that cut out of their schools or have small performing arts centers,” said Jonna Michelson, MCT tour marketing director, adding that some larger cities also pay for the program to come to town.

Between this summer’s 47 teams, tour directors will hold more than 400 residency weeks. Terri Elander, MCT international and public relations director, said 80 percent of the communities MCT visits ask the organization to return the following year.

When they do, children greet the familiar red trucks and enthusiastic tour directors with giant grins. But sometimes the adults are left a little puzzled when they walk into the local laundry.

“The tour directors pull out all these pig heads and flamingo feet,” Elander said. “Everybody is like, ‘What is that?’ ”

Although strangers before they meet for training in Missoula, tour directors get to know each other well – they spend 24/7 with one another for three months. Towns provide a place to sleep, whether it be in a motel or at a community member’s home.

“We joke that it’s the longest blind date ever,” said Dylan Wright, MCT tour manager.

He knows the feeling, quite literally. He completed his first tour in 2000, and by the time he finished his third, his partner was his girlfriend and would later become his wife.

***

While the next batch of tour directors wait to depart later this week, they will spend their time training – more than 12 hours a day. In addition to rehearsing the plays, they take lessons in teaching strategies, costume basics, proper packing of the truck, and how to present themselves to community members.

They even take the trucks out for a practice spin.

“It’s not survival of the fittest,” said Andrew Coopman, a first-time tour director. “It’s survival of the team.”

Those who have toured before teach the newcomers the ropes. This summer, 56 of the directors will go on tour for the first time, the largest group of newcomers in the 40 years MCT has provided the program.

“We expect a high-caliber show,” Wright said. “We’re not just putting on a play. We’re looking for professional-quality performances.”

Tour directors must want the part. MCT staff travel around the country to theater conferences, listening to actors’ monologues. If they like what they hear, they call the person back for a more in-depth interview and explain the program.

Some tour directors volunteer their services. Coopman, a recent graduate of Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., applied after his college adviser suggested the program would be a good fit.

He submitted an application only to receive a rejection letter.

But then MCT surprised him with a graduation present the day after he received his diploma. Someone had dropped out, and they wanted to give him a second shot.

He was so excited, he put on a dress shirt, tie, vest and slacks for the phone interview. The next day, he was employed.

“I know three things,” Coopman said. “I want to direct, I want to teach, and I want to inspire people through theater.”

MCT has given him that opportunity. Assuming he enjoys the program, which he does so far, he hopes to tour year after year.

“Theater is more than just saying lines on stage with ungodly amounts of makeup on,” Coopman said.

To him, it’s about telling a story. It’s a way to teach children life skills. And it’s fun.

***

That’s exactly why Merlo took the job. She participated at least four times as a child while living on Army bases in Texas and California. Her family had to relocate to a new base every couple of years for her father’s next assignment.

“As a military kid, you have to learn to adapt,” she said. “You move somewhere, and you don’t know anybody.”

She performed in her first play, “Cinderella,” at age 6 when MCT stopped at the Fort Hood Army base where her family lived. She may have had only one line, “Meow,” but the experience changed her life. She fell in love with theater.

She later moved to Fort Irwin in California, and her mother contacted MCT about coming to their new home. When a pair of tour directors showed up, she was ecstatic. MCT provided a rare sense of consistency to her life.

“It was an experience I was familiar with, and I knew going into it what I was doing,” Merlo said. “That’s never the case with military kids. You have a new experience every five minutes.”

She said it’s difficult for military bases to provide steady theater programs for children because families only live there for short periods of time.

As a fifth-grader at Fort Irwin, she took part in every theater opportunity she heard about. When the base couldn’t find enough high school students to act in a play, they gave her a call. Before she knew it, she was performing on stage as the mother of an 18-year-old in “The Music Man.” She didn’t mind the age difference. She was just happy performing in front of a crowd.

***

Whenever tour directors rolled into her base, Merlo’s mother invited them to her house for dinner. Merlo sat at the table in awe.

“They were the coolest people,” she said. “All the kids looked up to them. They were so confident.”

That confidence then transfers to the children, who get to participate in an activity they might never have thought about otherwise.

“We very much welcome kids who have special challenges who might not be able to be in a regular play but can do ours for a week,” Elander said.

When Merlo played the giant in MCT’s “Jack and the Beanstalk,” the tour directors didn’t realize at first that the kid who played Jack was dyslexic. But his reading disability didn’t matter – he memorized his lines and wowed the crowd.

After the performance, his parents walked up to the stage. They said they never thought he’d be able to pull off such a feat, and they couldn’t have been prouder.

It’s stories like that that remind MCT staff why they do what they do.

Each week, Michelson reads a “love letter” at the staff meeting. Sometimes the thank you notes induce laughter; at other times, they induce tears.

“It’s just something to keep in the forefront of our minds,” Elander said. “We’re doing what we do because it matters, and it makes a difference.”

Amy Sisk is a journalism student at the University of Montana and an intern for the Missoulian. She can be reached at (406) 523-5264 or amy.sisk@missoulian.com. Michael Gallacher is a Missoulian photographer. He can be reached at (406) 523-5270.

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