For nearly two decades, the Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theatre has been teaching kids every nuance of the magical world of theater

Story & photography by Kay Bjork

Everyone is in place. Actors wait expectantly on the sidelines, the tech crews on sound and light boards, while the stage crew moves quietly but quickly to set up the first scene. The curtain glides open, revealing a stunning hand-painted backdrop and actors who come to life, transformed into characters through finely crafted costumes and carefully studied and practiced lines. The stage explodes with original dance routines, and big vocals fill the theater. It’s show time and looks like professional theater, but it’s not. It’s the Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theatre.

When did children’s theater start looking like professional theater? It happened when native son Brach Thomson returned home to Bigfork in 2001 and founded the Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theatre (BPCT).

Thomson grew up in the world of theater as the son of Don and Jude Thomson, owners and operators of the Bigfork Summer Playhouse (BSP). Besides learning the ins and outs of the trade, he also learned the valuable the lessons of hard work, sacrifice and dedication required to sustain theater in a small, seasonal mountain town.

While growing up, Thomson’s emerging talent and passion for music was nurtured and quietly guided by his mother Jude, who was the BSP rehearsal accompanist and orchestra director for 50 years. He became accomplished on piano, trumpet and drums and dabbled with the electric bass. When he graduated from high school, he attended the University of Nevada, Reno, where he was awarded a trumpet scholarship. He jammed his days with course studies and musical groups, including marching and jazz bands and concert choir, and played gigs at night.

“I wanted to make sure I didn’t let college get in the way of my education,” he said.

Thomson realized his strong suit was actually the piano and became more interested and skilled in electronic and synthesized music. By his junior year, he was hired to run the Yamaha Music School. After he graduated with a B.A in music education, he established the Keybanger Music School in Reno and also played for numerous notable artists of the time, including Toni Tennile, Anne Margaret, Charo and Juliet Prowse, George Chakiris and Juice Newton. 

Founder and Director Brach Thomson sits outside the Bigfork Playhhouse Children’s Theatre, where music and theater rehearsals and workshops are held for area children.

Even with his success, he always planned to return home to work with his parents at the BSP and to start a children’s theater. He formed a business plan, acquired 501(c)3 nonprofit status and started the Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theatre in 2001. In addition, he became associate producer, company manager and music director at the Bigfork Summer Playhouse.

The children’s theater is also a family affair with three generations involved. Don, Jude and Brach’s wife Lisa are involved in a variety of ways, and Brach and Lisa’s children Kyle and Jenica have helped with and participated in the BPCT — Kyle in lighting and Jenica as an actress, topping off her senior year with the lead in Mary Poppins in October.

Thomson drew from his experiences at the BSP along with his teaching skills to establish the children’s theater, which includes productions and workshops. Workshops vary from “improv” to musical theater techniques to acting through songs. He also leads several music groups, including choir, jazz band and “Five and Holding,” which is composed of handpicked high school students who perform at a variety of community events.

Thomson schedules rehearsals and workshops later in the afternoon and evening so that children from neighboring communities can participate. There is a $50 participation fee for musical theater, with a scholarship fund in place to make sure the fee never prevents a child from participating. Parents are also required to help in a variety of ways, adding to the theater’s strong sense community. Dads and moms help build sets, do makeup and hair, publicity, cleanup, put on the opening night gala and help strike the set after the last performance.

Staff is hired to assist with choreography, directing, costumes and the box office. The cost is between $3,000 and $9,000 for each production, so the nonprofit relies on volunteer and donor support, as well as a variety of fundraisers throughout the year, including the “Touch of Christmas.” The show features Thomson on keyboards, with all the funds going to BPCT.

Parents help out in a variety of ways, including with hair and make-up. Pictured are Avery Passons and her mom Mindy Passons.

Support from the community makes the children’s theater possible and helped the BPCT to reach the goal of acquiring a building for workshops and rehearsals. The Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork purchased the building (formerly used for a thrift store) and carried the note until the BPCT could raise funds to buy it. After countless raffles and other fundraisers, the BPCT gained full ownership in 2017.

Growing up in professional theater gave Thomson the desire to create something that wasn’t typical children’s theater: “I wanted good costumes, good scenery, dances that weren’t circles — and good entertainment.”

The kids are held to a high standard from the beginning. At auditions, children perform a 30-second monologue, act out a character and are taught a song. The staff looks for a variety of qualities, including the ability to take the audience on an emotional ride, to project and articulate vocals, match pitch and understand rhythm. Last, but certainly not least, is that they demonstrate good behavior.

The hard part is when Thomson gathers the children and tells them, “Not all of you will make it because there are not enough spaces, but be proud of what you did today. Doing the audition is an accomplishment.” Children who are not selected get a free ticket to the play, giving them a chance to participate as an audience member and experience live theater.

The plays are put together in just two-and-a-half weeks, requiring the children to take the process seriously and stay focused. Thomson says, “If you expect they can, they will.” He is clear with the children about his expectations and tells them, “You can’t get up on the stage and do nothing. Nobody wants to watch you do nothing.”

Children are not just the actors, but they work in all aspects of theater production, including as part of the stage crew and tech crew that operate the fly, lights and soundboard in the professional setting of the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts.  Participants range from second grade through high school, which encourages a natural mentoring process. “Big kids help little kids,” Thomson says. By the time the show opens, they can literally put on the show themselves and, through the process, learn to be problem solvers.

Artistic Director Brach Thomson and the cast have some fun during warmups before the show.

Now in its 18th year, the BPCT has reached thousands of children. Teachers have shared stories of shy or timid children participating in the theater and walking away with their heads held higher. Thomson has observed kids with special needs participate fully, which amazes parents and makes the kids proud of their accomplishments. One child who lost his dad told Thomson, “You are like a father to me.” Others end up choosing to study and work in music or theater.

Thomson also feels rewarded when the show comes together and the kids are ready to present a show that is polished and entertaining.  In October, Mary Poppins utilized a sophisticated apparatus rented from “Flying by Foy” to get Mary Poppins airborne. During the show, a 2-year old near the front of the theater sat transfixed, his thumb in his mouth. When Mary Poppins popped open her umbrella and sailed away, his mouth dropped open, his thumb dropped out and his blue eyes widened. He turned to his mother, lifted up his hands and told her, “Mary Poppins fly away!”

Live theater can be wondrous, no matter what age you are. If you’re an actor, you get to be someone else. If you’re behind the scenes, you get to create a different world. And if you’re in the audience, you get to go somewhere else.

That is the goal of the Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theatre: to create something magical, both on and off the stage.

BPCT By the Numbers

  • 4-5 productions, with 5-6 performances per play
  • 3 concerts
  • 5 summer workshops
  • 3 fall workshops
  • Over 50 productions to date
  • 450-plus kids participate every year
  • Over 500 participants at the Afterschool Performing Arts Center
  • 350 parent volunteers
  • 5,000 people attend (including children bussed from area schools to see performances)

BPCT 2018-2019 Season

Touch of Christmas | Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m.

A Christmas Carol | Dec. 7, 8, 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m.

The Great Ghost Chase | Auditions: Grades 2-6, Jan. 8 | Performances Feb. 1, 2, 8 and 9 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 10 at 2 p.m.

The Addams Family | Auditions: Grades 5-12, Feb. 25 | Performances: March 15, 16, 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. and March 17 at 2 p.m.

Cowabunga | Auditions are for all ages TBA | Performances: April 12, 13

For more information, call Brach Thomson at (406) 837-4886 or (406) 837-0701