When Graham Northrup was deciding what play to feature for this year’s Theatre Aspen spring youth production, he didn’t have to look very far for inspiration: In any entertainment that you turn these days you are likely to run into a fantasy story set in the strange worlds of dragons and dwarves. As an avid fan of the strange, magical worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien while growing up, Northrup thought that a story like “The Hobbit” would present a unique series of learning opportunities for his students. What he didn’t realize immediately, but which has revealed itself through several months of intense rehearsal, is that the students would so passionately identify with the central theme of the story — overcoming great odds with courage and conviction.
Set in a fantasy world in which dwarves, elves and hobbits are forced to battle various baddies to survive, “The Hobbit” tells the story of one Bilbo Baggins, played in this week’s Theater Aspen youth production by the remarkably cast, first-time lead Jeremy Martin, a 10-year-old from Aspen Middle School.
The character of Bilbo is a commoner, not prone to adventure, until he reluctantly agrees to help his Dwarf friends on their quest to slay the dragon Smaug and return their stolen treasure from the massive dragon’s closely guarded lair.
Along the way, Bilbo and his friends, led by the dwarf Thorin, played here by 12-year-old AMS student Jack Seamans, and the iconic wizard Gandalf, played by 13-year-old Aspen Country Day student Audra Shield-Taylor, encounter a seemingly insurmountable series of obstacles, including run-ins with beautifully costumed goblins, a hilarious trio of trolls, giant spiders and more. It is the homebody Bilbo who finds the courage to see them through their quest, aided by his discovery of a powerful ring that gives him the ability to vanish into thin air, that is if he can outwit the creepy lizard-frog Gollum, played by Northrup’s daughter Price.
Martin, who looks and acts almost exactly like the film version of his famous character, says that “The Hobbit” is a complex production, and while it was scary at first to play the lead, there was no other way to overcome any anxiety than to just jump in. “I have 183 lines to read, and many songs to sing. Bilbo is a tough character to play because he really only has two expressions throughout — scared and skeptical. He’s scared because he really would rather be at home, and here he is fighting dragons, trolls and goblins. And he’s skeptical because everyone keeps telling him, ‘Oh! It’s so much fun!’”
The taller Shield-Taylor seems perfectly cast as Gandalf, as she towers over the younger cast of boys. When dressed in her stage beard and cloak, she loses herself in the role, which is exactly what Northrup hopes to instill. “I’ve never had the chance to be mysterious before,” says Shield-Taylor. “It’s fun because I can make up the backstory of this sort-of creepy old wizard and play off of that. When I am acting, you aren’t being Audra, you are Gandalf. So you can’t think of yourself as up there embarrassed when a friend comes in and sees you and starts laughing. I just think, “Who are you? I don’t even know you.”’
Northrup sees that sort of actor’s insight as exactly his aim in teaching theater. “You have to lose yourself into the role,” says Northrup, who acknowledges that “The Hobbit” features one of the more complex casts of characters possible for the fourth- through eighth-graders who perform.
He saw the challenge of giving his students the opportunity to learn and grow as more important than the possible difficulties that they might encounter in grasping the finer details of troll or dwarf life. “What I try to do is to treat them like adults. Like acting professionals, even though I know that they are not — they are still learning many of the skills, of course. But I don’t try to talk down to them. I try to meet them where they are at as an intellectual equal. I just coach them and then they do the work,” says Northrup. He sets high expectations and then helps the students achieve them. In return, the cast has grown immeasurably as actors over the past few months, and they love working with their director.
“He’s a really great director. Funny and good with kids,” says Seamans, who commands a difficult role as the leader of the dwarf quest to kill Smaug. “I’ve learned that you’ve just gotta try new things. And if you fail, you just keep trying. You can’t be afraid to try a new accent, or a new body posture,” he said.
Northrup sees the correlation between the epic quest to slay the dragon that Bilbo and friends undertake in the play and that of their own growth as actors. “‘The Hobbit’ is about this three-and-a-half-foot Halfling who has to use his brain and outwit some pretty nasty foes, including a giant dragon. And he has to use his courage. When others want to quit, it’s Bilbo who encourages them to keep fighting on. I think that resonates with a lot of people who feel small and deal with daunting tasks,” said Northrup.
At some point in rehearsals, the director found himself no longer taking copious performance notes, which he thought was a good sign. “I love getting to that point when I find myself totally absorbed in the process. When I realize that I haven’t taken a note for a good while, that’s when I know that the students are getting it — when they are telling me the story. … I love that moment.”