5 days, 40 young actors, 1 musical to rehearse

By LISA BRITTON Baker City Herald August 12, 2009 04:48 pm

Jon Gregory, right, invokes energy and enthusiasm from the young actors, like Haley Capon in the Missoula Children’s Theater production of King Arthur’s Quest. At far left is Caroline Nudley followed by Erin Parker. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins)
The scene onstage is organized chaos.

The girls stand in a circle, and one by one they say, in their best flippant voice:

“Oh no! I lost my lipstick!”

Next comes the singing.

“We’re going to sing a very important opera song. You might have heard of it — it’s ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat,’ ” says David Cross.

The children grin, then take a deep breath to belt out a boisterous rendition of the nursery rhyme.

As they sing, Cross and Jon Gregory move along the line, leaning in to better hear the individual voices.

This is a group audition for Missoula Children’s Theater, a company that sends two actors/directors — Cross and Gregory for this particular performance — who can create a musical in just five days of rehearsals.

MCT has brought theater to the Powder Valley School for about 15 years, but this is the first time the theater company has come to Baker City.

The visit is courtesy of Crossroads Carnegie Art Center and a grant from the Leo Adler Foundation.

Auditions began Monday morning for “King Arthur’s Quest,” an MCT adaptation of the popular legend of King Arthur, Guinivere, Sir Lancelot, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table.

The play has spots for 60 youths from kindergartners to seniors in high school.

To cast the parts, Cross and Gregory took the group through exercises that gave each child a chance to showcase his or her abilities.

During one phase, Gregory asked each young actor to express different emotions by saying a particular sentence.

Sad: “I can’t believe it’s true.”

Scared: “I don’t want to go over there!”

Angry: “Don’t mess with me, buddy.”

Happy: “Save the rain forest, dude.”

Sinister: “That’s not a good idea.”

They also test memories by asking the older actors to recite a grocery list of random items.

“Can you do that same list? And add a roll of toilet ” Gregory said to the next in line.

Then, abruptly, the directors ask off-the-wall questions:

Who’s better — Batman or Spiderman?

Who likes smelly cheese on their pizza?

Grapenuts: Is it a grape? Is it a nut?

As the children discussed these topics among themselves, the directors whispered to each other as they began to form their cast.

After each mini performance, the directors moved children around in a different order, but offered no explanation of their antics.

Then, one hour and 20 minutes into the audition, Cross and Gregory gathered all the youngsters together on stage.

First, Cross tells a story to explain the potential heartbreak of theater.

During an MCT audition in California, he said, 227 youths showed up with hopes of scoring a part in the cast.

“But we can’t have more than 60,” he said.

Then he looks over the current group of about 40.

“But sometimes we have awesome auditions when something awesome happens,” he said. “Everyone here on this stage is in our show!”

The kids and scattered audience of parents explode in applause

One by one the directors call out names to assign the roles, from The Minis, who come on stage as the miniature versions of the main characters, to King Arthur, Guinivere and Sir Lancelot.

“This is an awesome play — knights and kings and dragons and blood and gore. It’s not about butterflies,” Gregory says with a smile.

Then the directors look out over their new cast.

“We only want one thing this week, and that is perfection,” Cross says, deadpan.

Then his face breaks into a smile.

“Just kidding!”

The intense week of rehearsals culminates with two performances for the public: 6 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday, both at Baker High School, 2500 E St.

Admission is $5.