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Missoula Children’s Theatre touring actors Samantha Cook, right, and Meagan Wiltshire were all smiles Tuesday afternoon at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts as they talked about their adventures and misadventures in Bahrain this summer. MCT executive director Michael McGill, left, and tour manager Dylan Wright listen in.

MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

At the start of summer, Samantha Cook and Meagan Wiltshire would have been hard pressed to find Bahrain on a map, let alone talk about it beyond the common stereotypes.

But when the two veteran members of Missoula Children’s Theatre returned this week from the island nation in the Persian Gulf, they did so as diplomats, wise to the ways of that distant culture.

“It was pretty wild,” said Wiltshire, seated Tuesday at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts. “It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It was strange and kind of surreal.”

Wiltshire, of Livingston, and Cook, of Missoula, were one of five teams from MCT sent around the world this summer to lead children from military families in theatrical performances of “Robin Hood.”

The shows are contracted through the Department of Defense, giving children who often jump from base to base – following parents through distant deployments – a chance to test their talents in the performing arts.

While MCT has taken on a decidedly international flavor in recent years, sending teams abroad isn’t something the company takes lightly. Those selected for the task view themselves as diplomats, both for the company and the country in general.

“Whenever we go out, whether it’s international or local, MCT does a good job of reminding us we’re ambassadors wherever we go,” said Cook. “We already have that ingrained in us that we’re representing something greater than ourselves.”

Wiltshire and Cook have both worked with MCT on the road as tour actors and directors for several years. Both have traveled out of country, but the trip to Bahrain marked their first to the Middle East.

They described it as a cultural eye-opener full of surprises. They arrived at the close of Ramadan and witnessed the Eid, a Muslim holiday marking the end of fasting. Their hosts were gracious and friendly, eager to share their customs pertaining to prayer, the Quran, shopping and dining Middle Eastern style.

“We tried to immerse ourselves as much as we could,” said Cook. “When we toured the Grand Mosque, I wasn’t expecting a woman to be leading the tour or teaching. She taught classes during the week on the Quran and reading it appropriately.”

As Wiltshire and Cook shared their adventures, four other teams from MCT unpacked from excursions to Japan, Korea, Spain, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Guam and the Azores, among other countries.

It’s been a busy season for a company that traces its roots to 1970 when, as the story goes, Jim Caron broke down in Missoula while traveling from Chicago to Oregon. Along with Don Collins, he built MCT from the ground up.

MCT opened its downtown Missoula facility in 1998. The company now tours all 50 states and includes a performing arts camp, a local community theater and an international program.

“This summer was definitely the largest overseas fly tour we’ve had,” said MCT tour director Dylan Wright. “We had five teams flying. Normally it’s two per season. It has really exploded.”

With their tour behind them, Cook is preparing to move to Hawaii, where she’ll work as a school librarian. Wiltshire will stick around, looking to stay involved in MCT. The company is a family with members scattered around the world.

“Working in Bahrain was a great opportunity and one I’ll always remember,” said Wiltshire.

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260 or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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