About 60 young students flooded into the Columbia High School theater in Burbank, giggling and chattering.
Nick Spencer, a Missoula Children’s Theater tour actor director, stepped onto the stage and waved broadly, greeting them with a hearty “Hello everyone!”
The students, ranging in age from 5 to 17 years old, were there to rehearse their roles in a theatrical production of the fairy tale The Princess and the Pea.
It was Wednesday — the first day the entire cast sat in the same room together.
They had only two days to prepare for the curtain, which rises at 7 p.m. Friday.
They had auditioned Monday with Spencer and his fellow tour actor director, Sara Fortner.
“We have characters like Jack Frost. We have leprechauns. We have two separate kingdoms, Riverdom and Glacierdom,” Fortner said. “It’s definitely a Missoula twist to it.”
Along with other changes, the traditional ending where the princess spends a restless night on the stack of mattresses was changed, and the pea is now a character.
Spencer and Fortner started in the theater group in June and traveled around the state since mid-September. They’ve led about 16 groups of children through the production.
When they first started putting on the show, choosing the children to play the parts was difficult. They learn to spot a movement of a hand or a manner of speech that fits a character.
“You start to see little characteristics,” Fortner said. “Someone can do the slightest thing and that character is the princess, that character is Jack Frost. You immediately just know.”
Now the hardest task is picking a person to play a role out of a host of good actors.
“It’s crazy because it’s a time crunch,” Spencer said. “You only have two hours to cast all of the kids. So you’ve got that over your head too. You can’t even take the luxury of trying to take your time. You just try to make the best choice you can with the time you have.”
After receiving a role, the children are handed a 50-page script. While Fortner doesn’t know how many lines each individual part has, the children always do.
“It’s so funny, because they’ll always be like, ‘I have this many lines,’ ” she said.
They have to explain the number of lines doesn’t make one actor more important than another, she said.
“There are kids who have tons of lines,” she said. “The princess, herself, actually has ... a little monologue that she has to do, and every time they see that they’re like, ‘I have to memorize that whole thing?’ ”
“You’re going to be fine,” she tells them.
The groups rise to the challenge differently, Spencer and Fortner said. Some receive their scripts and learn their lines right away, and some take more time.
“By Wednesday, (some of the children say,) ‘I know everything. I know my part,’ ” she said. “Then you’ll have some kids that you get to a little later in the week and it’s like, ‘OK. We have a show in a couple of days.’ ... Most of the time, they’re fine. ... They know it better than they think. They just start second-guessing themselves.”
Once the children start believing in themselves, they discover they know the material, Spencer said.
“Once you get them in front of those parents, normally everyone lights up, and all of the energy they may have had or not had through the week blooms on out and they’re ready to go,” he said.
Fortner said it’s amazing what children can accomplish in a week.
“That’s stuff you see professionals do. So it’s amazing to see a group of kids, especially kids as young as 5, doing it,” she said.
The play is free to attend.