The Hobbit in rehearsal. Foreground: Zach Arfa as Bilbo Baggins
"This is the first time in six years I’ve directed a production that’s stayed in one space the entire time,” says Jonathan Diamond. He is referring to his truly epic stage version of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings prequel. So, he adds, “because I couldn’t move the audience from room to room, I decided to move the room around the audience.”
The room in question is the auditorium at Mohawk Trail Regional High School in Shelburne Falls. High platforms and scenic murals flank the walls and the two ramps up to the stage have been converted into flowing rivers. “I wanted to transform the space entirely, so the minute the audience walked into the building they were transported to another world,” Diamond explains. The multi-dimensional production is also multi-disciplinary, featuring circus skills, giant puppets, choreographed battle sequences and a live six-piece band.
The show is huge and complex, fielding a cast of 35 middle- and high-schoolers plus another 30-plus choral singers and battle extras, and employing the talents of a dozen or more guest artists from the Valley and hilltowns. They include music director Scott Halligan, a Double Edge veteran, and Pan Morigan of Chrysalis Theater, who wrote original songs for the show; film production designer Larry Sampson, who created the puppets and costumes; Double Edge ensemble member Hannah Jarrell; and Mike Pray and others from Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble, who led combat training.
The production is not just a Mohawk event, but a collaboration with two other schools—The Academy at Charlemont and Heath Elementary—which has grown out of a long-term relationship with Ashfield’s Double Edge Theatre. Diamond, who works in the drama programs at all three schools, is a regular participant in Double Edge’s Open Trainings, in which the company shares its physical theater vocabulary with other artists and interested civilians. Many of his students and their parents have joined in the trainings, and that aesthetic informs the work on this show.
“The training experiences at Double Edge help us expand our imaginations and hone our craft,” Diamond says, “but it’s so much more than that. At the heart of what we do is teaching children and young adults ensemble work and how to be part of a team. What I’ve learned most from my time spent at Double Edge is that theater isn’t just about acting and set building, it’s about world-making. We’re using theater to build supportive, creative communities.”
In The Hobbit, actors balance on huge rolling cable spools, and the stage is hung with half a dozen aerial fabrics, long strands of “working silk” on which the young performers shinny and hang. These elements “are definitely attention getters,” Diamond says, “and yes, they help us create beautiful images. But they also help us push beyond our physical limits and expand our imaginations.”
Diamond views the interacademic collaboration as “a cost-effective way to bring professional artists into the schools” and sees it as part of an effort “to create a larger sense of community that transcends buildings and school campuses and instills in young people a sense of place and appreciation of hilltown life and passion for the arts.”•
The Hobbit: March 8-10, Mohawk Trail Regional High School, 24 Ashfield Road, Shelburne Falls. Tickets $5-$7 at local retailers, (866) 967-8167 or mohawkschools.org/mohawk.php.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.