Over the past two months, Jim Caron has spent his evenings teaching good kids how to be bad. It's an odd and rather ironic challenge for the co-founder of Missoula Children's Theatre. And what's proven even more ironic is this: He's never had an easier time working with a cast of teenagers.
"This group of kids has been an absolute delight to work with," Caron said in an interview just days before the opening of MCT Community Theatre's production of the classic troubled-teen musical, "Grease."
Though it was written in 1972 and is set in the 1950s, "Grease" could serve as a catalogue of the thorniest social issues facing teens today: gang violence and teen pregnancy, class divisions and celebrity obsession, petty theft and poisonous rumors, underage smoking and drinking. Its central characters, the so-called "greasers" of Rydell High School, are working-class social misfits whose lives are framed by the Burger Palace and the drive-in theatre.
In other words, these are exactly the opposite kids from those evoked in "Bye Bye Birdie," the 1960 musical that MCT produced around this time last year.
"The difference between this and ‘Bye Bye Birdie' is that ‘Grease' is much more realistic in situations that kids were actually dealing with in the '50s - and are still dealing with today," said Caron. "As the name implies, it's about the other kids in high school, the ones that the kids from ‘Bye Bye Birdie' wouldn't dare associate with."
In a way, they're also the opposite of most of the Missoula teenagers who populate MCT's cast. For this production, Caron decided to employ a cast made up entirely of local high school students, with the exception of one adult. Noting the lack of an "all-city" high school musical production, Caron consciously chose to spread the roles among all of the high schools in the Missoula Valley.
Meaning, of course, that he wound up with a cast of good kids.
"Obviously, theatre kids are closer to the ‘Bye Bye Birdie' kids than the greasers in real life, but they're having fun being the bad kids," said Caron. "It's fun seeing them play that. There's two or three of them who I had to show how to hold a girl. ... And while it hasn't exactly been a sex ed class, a couple of them didn't really understand the ending when (the character Rizzo) is theoretically pregnant."
Oddly enough, Carnon said that working with the large cast of students has proved easier than past productions featuring both students and adult actors.
"I actually think it's because there's no adults except for one," said Caron. "So they don't have to deal with finding their place among more seasoned actors, and I think that's actually been a positive influence on their attitude. There are no complaints, no eye-rolling when we say we're going to run it again. It's been just a joy."
The lone adult in the production may have something to do with that, as well. She's Margaret Johnson, who taught drama at Sentinel High School for some 37 years, and after whom the school renamed its theatre in 2000.
"Margaret is an absolute role model for the right kind of discipline in the theatre," said Caron. "It's been interesting to have her there as an influence, as well as such a great actor in the play."
Caron, who recently penned a guest editorial for the Missoulian about his experience working with the students in "Grease," said his experience over recent weeks has inspired him to make the "all-city musical" concept an annual part of MCT's offerings.
"Anyone coming with the expectation to see children performing will be pretty much amazed at the level these kids are giving," said Caron, noting that the band of accompanying musicians and the stage crew are also made up almost entirely of high school students. "It's a real testament to the phenomenal quality of the high school drama programs that exist around Missoula, so if you come to our show and like what you see, you'll like what's going on in the local high schools as well."