Bringing Children to the Bright Lights

By Beacon Staff

The first time Luke Walrath and Betsi Morrison held auditions for the Alpine Kids! Theatre Project, 120 children walked through the door in Whitefish.

“Betsi turned to me and said, ‘We’ve got to keep them all,’” Luke recalled.

The popularity of the Alpine Theatre Project’s children’s program has not diminished in the five years since it started. On Oct. 19 and 20, more than 100 local students will come together for a performance of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” The kids theater program is the cornerstone of the project’s larger initiative to get young people involved in the performing arts and, since 2008, more than 750 children have taken part. Walrath said the program is beneficial to both children and the professional actors who perform in Whitefish.

“It’s easy for us in the professional realm to lose sight of what got us into theater – we all got into it because we love it – but when it becomes your job, the stresses can get in the way,” he said. “This children’s program reminds us why we got into this: To move and inspire people and to create an experience for the audience. It’s fun to see the kids discover that.”

The Alpine Theatre Project began in 2004 when Walrath and Morrison, a husband and wife team from New York, first moved to Whitefish, where Morrison grew up. Every summer, the project brings professional Broadway actors to perform in Whitefish. Big names who have come to town include John Lithgow, Robert Goulet and Henry Winkler.

Walrath said the children’s theater project was established as a way to give back to the community that has been so supportive over the last decade.

“Our goal isn’t to breed the next Broadway star but rather get as many kids exposed to theater and show them what it can do to their lives,” he said. “It can enhance creativity and give them confidence, all important life skills.”

Walrath said no child is turned away from the program, but everyone must audition. When there are more kids than roles, the group is split in two and they have two full casts for multiple performances. During the fall, students from grades first through eighth perform, and in the spring students from the local high schools take the stage. According to Morrison, the kids have performed everything from “High School Musical” to the “Jungle Book.”

Luke Walrath, marketing education director of the Alpine Theatre Project, teaches a bow to John Barton, right, and Isabelle Bennett during rehearsal for “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Jr.” at Muldown Elementary School in Whitefish. – Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

“(The children’s program) has become a big part of what we do now,” Morrison said.

One veteran of the ATP’s children’s program is Casey Brown. The former Flathead High School student performed with ATP and the Bigfork Children’s Playhouse before attending the University of Southern California. This year he appeared in the FX television series “Justified,” starring Timothy Olyphant as a federal marshal in the hallows of eastern Kentucky. Last month, he moved to New York City to continue pursuing his acting career.

While Brown has the talent to make it big, he said contacts he made through ATP and its children’s program have been invaluable.

“It was where I got started,” he said. “The community and kids don’t know how lucky they are to have this, to have a 400-seat theater that can be filled. It’s something that should be cherished and protected.”

The theater is sure to be packed this weekend, when the Alpine Kids! Theatre Project performs “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center. One-hundred and nine kids have been split into two casts for four performances at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Oct. 19 and 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Oct. 20. Tickets for the show are $15 for adults and $8 for children 12 and under. For tickets and more information, call 406-862-SHOW or visit www.atpwhitefish.org.

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