MCT Inc. is launching its first capital campaign since the 1990s, when it constructed its building on East Broadway.
This second campaign aims to retire the mortgage for the property and give a boost to the nonprofit's touring arm, the Missoula Children's Theatre, which sends its fleet of little red trucks to some 1,200 communities each year.
The "One Million Reasons to Say Yes!" campaign has a goal of raising $1.2 million by the end of May.
Craig Langel, a Missoula certified public accountant and volunteer member of the MCT board of directors, has pledged to donate $250,000 if MCT can raise another $750,000.
If MCT succeeds, it would be spared monthly payments of some $20,000 and could grow all of its programs by 10 percent.
"If we can retire that mortgage, we can use that money that we're paying in interest to reach more people," said Cate Sundeen, MCT's development director. "That's what it's about. It's not about the mortgage – it's about what we can do with that money."
Missoula Community Theatre, with its local productions, is the most visible portion of MCT to local residents. The children's theater, meanwhile, is the world's largest touring children's theater.
It sends out 47 trucks with two actor-producer-directors with scripts, costumes and props to communities in the U.S., Canada and military bases abroad.
They audition up to 100 children and stage a play within a week.
Requests from communities and schools far exceed the number of places MCT can visit.
The growth of the tour, however, has "leveled off" due to a number of factors, according to MCT.
For one, schools – particularly small ones – are cutting their arts budgets.
"There are 56 Montana presenters in towns like Belfry, Browning, Geyser, Havre and Rapelje that have not booked a residency week in one to 12 years," Sundeen said in an email.
The tour prides itself on reaching rural communities where there are limited arts opportunities for children and adults alike.
"What's cool is it's not just about the kids, it's about the community," Sundeen said.
Parents and community members rally around an MCT play, she said, which often gives children their first shot at performing.
In a video testimonial, a teacher from faraway Rankin Inlet on Hudson Bay in Canada, said the play was an impetus for a child to finally learn a skill that had eluded him for two years.
"One of the actors, a boy in grade 3, learned how to read that week," said teacher Bernadette Dean.
Another factor in the stall in touring growth came from the U.S. Air Force, which didn't renew its contracts for performances at 18 overseas bases this year due to federal sequestration. MCT is hopeful the contracts will be renewed next year.
MCT will still visit domestic Air Force bases, as well as Navy and Army installations here and abroad. Those journeys extend to far-flung places such as Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Saudi Arabia.
The base tours are popular with military families for a few reasons. Their geographic locations (see Bahrain) can be quite isolated, and young service members' families, who move multiple times a year, may be isolated socially as well.
"For a lot of these kids, it's their first introduction to their peer group," said Terri Elander, director of the international tour and public relations.
If a tour stops by in summer, those kids can make friends before the school year even starts.
Jack Briggs, a major general with the U.S. Air Force, offered a video testimonial for the campaign.
"Many times, we have young families that arrive at our bases overseas, and they don't know how to connect, but they see that MCT is going to have their program," he said.
Young parents meet other parents, and children, families and communities are brought together, he explained. His children went through the program while he was stationed abroad – even when they moved again, his kids could still be a part of MCT plays.
MCT has been assembling those testimonials from its many alumni – Elander has a trove of emails and letters dating back to her MCT debut in 1991.
They also include people who have moved on to professional careers in the field, and at least one Oscar winner.
J.K. Simmons, a University of Montana music major, got his start in acting as an adult in an MCT production of "Oliver!" (He played a knife grinder.)
They also include Christy Bain, who acted in MCT plays as a child and and is now director of artist relations for the Seattle Repertory Theatre. John Shaffner, an Emmy Award-winning set designer, offered an endorsement as well. The UM graduate also has lent his skills to MCT over the years.
Rising costs also play a role in the campaign launch. The prices of goods and materials increase faster than MCT's fee to the schools, which are only raised in small amounts. There are higher costs for people as well.
MCT recently added health insurance for all of its touring actor-directors. "That was a big expense, but we thought it was important," Sundeen said.
"That's just one example of how everything is kind of rising right now. We just need to get ahead of it," she said.
A successful campaign, too, could allow them to increase hours for their home staff.
"We have a very lean staff of very committed people who work limited hours of the day," said Elander. Some workers now are capped at 22 hours a day, and the nonprofit as a whole could benefit if they were able to work more.
The first phase of the campaign has quietly kicked off already. It may expand to include grant applications, but currently is targeting private donations only.
The MCT board is pursuing major donors, while the producers, directors and players are engaged in one-on-one fundraising with their friends and peers.
"It's not just about the big donors," said Sundeen, the development director. "Every dollar matters. And every person who comes here matters so much to us."
On May 2, MCT will host a public kickoff and pursue donations through direct mail and social media.
It will take place at the Broadway headquarters, which hosts at least two events a week – weddings, receptions, other theater companies, musical performances and more.
In addition to hosting community happenings, MCT estimates that some 70 percent of its money is spent locally.
"It strikes me that somebody who maybe doesn't even like theater and has never set foot in the building, they are affected by what we do," Elander said.
"It's something that's so much broader than the good feeling of what it does for the kids," she said.