Learning the Ropes (and Vines) of Theater

Alpine Theatre Project’s kids’ program presents high-flying ‘Tarzan the Musical’

By Molly Priddy
Reed Boyer smiles while learning to fly as students rehearse "Tarzan" at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center on Oct. 12, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Of all the pieces of theater that Alpine Theatre Project’s Luke Walrath and Betsi Morrison hoped to impart on their youngest of students, it turns out that flying across the stage while your costars work on their knuckle-dragging skills is right up there with diction and poise.

But that’s just part of the game when you’re imparting theatric education via “Tarzan the Musical,” which follows the story of a man raised among the wild things of the jungle.

“It’s a blast, it’s a fun story, it’s a physical show,” Walrath, the education and outreach coordinator for ATP, said. “There’s like five humans in the entire show and like 60 apes. I am constantly telling them, ‘Get on your knuckles!’”

“Tarzan” will play out on stage at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center on Oct. 21 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and then Oct. 22 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

The musical, which features more than 130 students grades first through eighth from 15 different schools around the Flathead Valley, is the culmination of the final educational session of the year.

In the spring, ATP Kids offers a session for high-school students, then a camp in the summer for middle- and high-school students, and finally, the fall session for grade-school kids.

The students have been hard at work rehearsing for “Tarzan” since the beginning of September, when they’ve been joining Walrath and Morrison – who works as the producing artistic director at ATP – at Muldown Elementary after school.

All of the students who came out for the ATP Kids production will be part of the show, Walrath said; there were no cuts. This is a key aspect of the ATP Kids program, which started in 2008 as a potential pipeline to find and develop the next Broadway stars from the Flathead.

But the focus quickly changed to one of inclusion and education, he said.

“We wanted to get everybody in. We didn’t want to turn anybody away,” Walrath said. “We thought, ‘What are we doing here? Are we trying to find the next Broadway star, or are we just trying to show kids what being in theater can do for you, building your confidence and creativity?”

Walrath and Morrison went with the latter, and haven’t regretted the decision, having watched almost a decade of students learn and bloom on stage.

“This program is about giving kids and opportunity to be a part of this,” he said. “Since 2008, we have never turned a student away.”

Some kids get bigger parts, because that’s how theater works. One or two have asked to work in production and behind the scenes, but for the most part, the students are on stage, split into two different casts.

Morrison wanted to make sure the kids felt like they were part of a real theater, Walrath said, and bringing in equipment to get 15 kids flying across stage as part of the show is part of that goal.

“(Morrison) wants the kids to feel like they’re part of something big, that they’re excited and proud to be part of something this big,” Walrath said.

Practice runs a couple hours each day, and Walrath and Morrison find that controlling the chaos is easier with the help of parent volunteers.

“It’s funny because I think there are certain directors who don’t want parents in the room,” Walrath said. “But we’ve actually found that parents are incredibly respectful and they want to help. They want their kids to have a great experience.”

Enrollment for ATP Kids programs is up this year, he said, and the eventual goal would be to find a permanent theater space to be able to run educational programs all year long, instead of relying on production-based sessions like that with “Tarzan.”

But until then, the focus is on flying through the air with the greatest of ease and calling apes with wild jungle howls.

“This is one of the more physical shows that we’ve done. It’s great for this age group because they are so energetic and they are so playful,” Walrath said. “I think this show is a little more spectacular in nature just because of the flying.”

“Tarzan the Musical” runs Oct. 21-22. Tickets are $18 for adults, $10 for students. Call 406-862-7469 or visit www.atpwhitefish.org for more information.

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