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From casting to show time in five days: Prairie Fire Children's Theatre specializes in quick turnarounds

Madrigals (from left) Bria Burginger, Rowan Boesl, Cora Bumgarner and Ranna Johnson rehearse for director Bryan Farthing. (Ross Evavold / Echo Press)1 / 4
Marissa Hopper (top) frightens Parker Zwach, who is playing the role of Beauty, in a rehearsal of "Beauty and the Beast" at Discovery Middle School. (Ross Evavold / Echo Press)2 / 4
Bryan Farthing, technical director of Prairie Fire Children's Theatre, shows fifth-grader Ben Mistele how to play a scene in "Beauty and the Beast." (Ross Evavold / Echo Press)3 / 4
Kira Lindley, Addie Bruns and Olivia Zollner rehearse for director Mikhayla Clausen. (Ross Evavold / Echo Press)4 / 4

When you only have five days from casting a play to performing it, time is of the essence. Bryan Farthing has been doing this for nearly nine years now, and knows exactly how to pull together this seemingly impossible task.

One day after casting 57 roles for a production of "Beauty and the Beast," he was already running through scenes, working one-on-one with students from ages 7-14, showing them how to deliver lines for maximum effect, and emphasizing how to play their parts with more movement and to project their voices.

It doesn't take long to recognize that Farthing, technical director for the Prairie Fire Children's Theatre group, clearly loves the weekly challenge, and that he has a talent for introducing school kids by the dozens to the world of theater. He could put his skills to work in one school, for example, but after so many years he obviously enjoys a more nomadic existence.

"I like to travel, and don't mind living out of a suitcase," he said. "What I like about this is that you're able to impact a far greater group of kids."

That impact is shown in emails he receives from students he has directed in plays, and it struck him on a trip to Seattle a few years ago when he was approached by a kid who he had just directed in Bloomington. It is also apparent to the students he is directing this week.

"Our director makes everything really fun, and keeps us interested constantly. He's very entertaining and very funny, and you can tell that he really enjoys what he does," Parker Zwach, who is playing the lead role of Beauty, said of Farthing.

"Even the rules are funny," she said, citing as an example "water-flavored water in a working water bottle."

The Community Education program at Alexandria Public Schools usually brings the professional touring theater company to Alexandria twice a year, said Amy Skarka, the program's youth enrichment coordinator. They will return July 22-26 for students entering grades 3-10 to perform "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

But the current challenge is to prepare "Beauty and the Beast" for two performances within a week. That got more challenging when school was closed Thursday, costing the students critical run-throughs.

Consequently, the play was pushed back a day from its original Friday performances. One performance was eliminated because of school closings, so the show will be performed only at noon on Saturday at Discovery Middle School's auditorium.

The play, described as "an unjust prince, a gypsy curse and a young girl who sees beyond appearances," was only scheduled for one performance. However, because such a large group of students tried out for the play, a second showing was added.

Farthing said the play, which follows the book more closely than it does the familiar Disney movie, includes a surprising mix of humor that features some jokes intended for adults.

Playing Beauty

The lead role went to Zwach, an eighth-grader who is already a veteran actor. She has been in 15 shows at the Andria Theatre, (she was in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" this winter, and plans on being in "The Lion King" there this summer), and this is her second PFCT play. She has caught the acting bug, and is giving thought to pursuing musical theater.

She has been chosen for the lead role once before, in the PFCT production of "Alice in Wonderland." She played Alice, and was just as excited about snaring the role of Beauty.

The idea of learning 35 pages of dialogue and staging within just a few days can provoke doubts, but Zwach has done it before.

"It helps (to memorize) if you read it out loud to yourself," she said, noting that some lines come more naturally than others. She stayed up late Monday night learning her lines, and admits it has been a little harder to concentrate in class this week.

"It's been fun getting to know the character," said Zwach, who also is enjoying rehearsing the play with friends.

Back in Alex

Farthing, who hails from Maryland, has another big challenge with this play, which is the third he has directed in Alexandria. "It has quite a few hammy speaking parts," he said, explaining that the nine servants are all distinct personalities, and he is tasked with forging those personalities in only a few days. It helps when he has a talented group of kids who are enthusiastic about acting. That isn't always the case.

The other director for this play is Mikhayla Clausen, a native of Belle Plaine who went to Minnesota State University in Mankato for musical theatre. This is her second tour with PFCT, which is based in Barrett and has been in operation since 1987, touring primarily nine Midwest states. It has a half-dozen shows going this week, in four other Minnesota towns and one in Wisconsin.

Clausen says she has already worked with about 500 students, some of whom made a deep impression on her. The opportunity to make an impact on their life has been meaningful.

"Kids in small (towns) don't have a chance to do a lot of theater," she said.

She has a unique perspective of PFCT, having been in shows as a student. Ironically, "Tom Sawyer" was the first show she directed for the company, and it was also a play she acted in as a youngster.

"Prairie Fire was the first full-length show, and then once I hit high school, I remember thinking this might be a thing I am going to do," Clausen said.

"It's great that Alex brings us in. The kids are great, and they learn a lot in one week — and it's something they can use the rest of their lives."

If you go

WHAT: "Beauty and the Beast," A Prairie Fire Children's Theatre Production hosted by Alexandria Public Schools Community Education

WHERE: Discovery Middle School auditorium, 510 McKay Ave. N.

WHEN: Saturday, April 13, at noon

INFO: Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for students, and only available at the door. For both shows, it's $7 for adults and $3 for students.