Middle Earth comes to Mohawk
Community effort on staging ‘The Hobbit’ opens March 8
Elves vs Dwarves
Thoran Oakenshield funeral
Recorder file/Paul Franz
Trolls decide whether to eat Bilbo, played by Zach Arfa, in the Mohawk Trail Regional School's spring production of "The Hobbit."
Zach Arfa as Bilbo deals with Ashley Robertson as Gollum with the voices of Kayla Kurland-Davis, Lexxey Boron-Smith and Sam Harris-Fried adding music.
Zach Arfa as Bilbo is invisible to Erin Townsley as Smaug, but she can smell him.
“THE HOBBIT,” Mohawk Trail Regional School’s annual play. Friday, March 8, at 7 p.m., Saturday, March 9, at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, March 10, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $7 per adult and $5 for students and senior citizens. They may be bought online from the school’s website: http://mohawkschools.org/mohawk.php. Tickets can also be purchased from the school office, from Mocha Maya’s or Mo’s Fudge Factor in Shelburne Falls, Elmer’s in Ashfield, and World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield. If you want to go, we suggest you get tickets in advance as this show could sell out.
The old movie term “cast of thousands” comes to mind while watching the choreographed battle scenes and musical numbers being performed during rehearsals for Mohawk’s annual all-school play “The Hobbit,” which opens Friday, March 8.
But this year’s show goes beyond the 100 or so students who will be on stage: It also represents training sessions from professional actors, collaboration with other local schools and work by artists-in-residence. Giant puppetry, circus arts, innovative staging and original music are among the highlights of this first show by Mohawk’s new drama coordinator. Music will be performed by the school band.
For four years, school parent Jonathan Diamond of Heath directed the annual school play at Heath Elementary School, collaborating with Ashfield’s Double Edge Theatre and the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vt., to produce innovative, sold-out plays.
In October, after he was hired as Mohawk’s new drama coordinator, Diamond started a drama club, “to get kids to start working in this particular way. It’s our take on the Double Edge Theatre (method),” he explained. “It’s very physical. There’s lots of training work that we do in layers. We started using just movement. Then we add music. The last thing we add is text.”
“They have to move together, said Diamond. “We start moving our characters. Then we add the music and all sing together.”
“We adopted a 1968 script,” he says of the play, “and we beefed it up a little.”
Casting workshops were held in November, and, instead of using auditions to eliminate actors, every student who wanted to be in the play has a part.
The core cast consists of about 35 students, with about 60 others participating in battle scenes and as “extras.”
“Students don’t read for individual parts they want,” Diamond explained. “We took a survey and asked kids what kind of role they wanted, or if there was a specific character they wanted to play. With one or two exceptions, we were able to give everyone at least their first or second choice. We trained and read together in small groups. The scenes we used included all the various characters and creatures.”
“When I cast, I’m less interested in individual talent and more interested in finding groups that work well together and make each other better, and make the whole ensemble shine,” he added.
Because so many students wanted to be in the show, Diamond said Mohawk added a few new characters to the script and “feminized” the nearly all-male story to create more strong parts for girls. “For instance, our King of the Wood Elves became Queen of the Wood Elves,” he explained.
The story is about the middle-aged, initially unadventurous hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (played by freshman student Zach Arfa), who is tricked into becoming a “burglar” by the wizard Gandalf (John Hollister). Bilbo joins 13 dwarves led by their king — Thorin Oakenshield (Robby Buoniconti) — on a quest to reclaim The Lonely Mountain and its treasure. Their ancestral home was taken from them by what author J.R.R. Tolkien calls “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm” — the dragon Smaug (played by Erin Townsley). Among the fantastic creatures Bilbo meets is the murderous Gollum (Ashley Robertson), and it is near Gollum’s lair that Bilbo finds a magic ring that turns out to be both evil and powerful. It had earlier slipped off Gollum’s own hand, to his anguish when he discovers it missing. By accident, Bilbo discovers the ring makes him invisible and so escapes Gollum.
“We started in December with four workshops to create a sense of group,” said Diamond. “We began traditional rehearsals in January with calls for specific cast members, but we always train and rehearse together, at least once a week. While (music director) Scott Halligan and I — and all the faculty and guest artists involved — try to pass on our love for this art form to students, what we’re most passionate about is using theater to build supportive, creative communities. Collaboration is the heart of everything we do — teaching children and young adults ensemble work and how to be part of a team.”
Like Diamond, Halligan has also worked with Double Edge Theatre before coming to Mohawk and the two men trained and studied together. Two years ago, Halligan assisted with the Heath school’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
On a recent half-day of school, a few dozen students spent about five hours in the auditorium, practicing their choreographed battle scenes with clattering wooden swords and going over some of the musical numbers with a trio of singers:, Lexxie Boron-Smith, Sam Harris-Fried and Kayla Kurland-Davis.
When not practicing their battle “leaps” onto one another’s shoulders or their stealthy moves toward a massive puppet dragon, the student cast members “hang out,” tying knots in the trapeze-like hanging silks to make temporary “hammocks” they could sit and swing in from the stage.
“Any time we’re here, I’m always on the silks,” said Ady Harris-Fried of Buckland.
For many of these students, rehearsal time has become a five-day-a-week workout: there are after-school rehearsals four afternoons per week, from 2:30 to 5 p.m., and Saturday workshops from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“The dwarves are here all the time,” said Harris-Fried, one of the dwarves.
Rosalie Kinsey of Ashfield said she liked the circus arts training on how to climb the silks. She also enjoyed learning stage combat, such as how to throw fake punches, she said.
Eleventh-grader Robbie Buoniconti compared the rigor of getting ready for the play to being part of a sports team. “Everyone has a role to play and everyone is important,” he said. Buoniconti said he was interested in a directing role, but was encouraged to tryout for an acting part.
Zach Arfa of Buckland has been in several plays before playing Bilbo Baggins in this play. Arfa appeared last year in “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which looks back on the stories of local World War II veterans. He has also attended Deerfield Academy’s Summer Arts Camp.
He is in almost every scene and has, like the others, practically made Mohawk his second home while preparing for the production.
When asked what’s been the most difficult thing about his part, Arfa said was learning how to “faint” in the first scene, when the timid Bilbo first hears about the plans to fight the dragon.
“I have to fall off the stage backward, into the arms of the dwarves,” he explained. “I’m absolutely terrified of heights. I wasn’t able to do that at all, at first.”
Arfa said he’s had to practice this in incremental steps, doing smaller “trust falls” with the other actors, leading up to the stage fall. About a week and a half before the play, Arfa says he’s only accomplished this feat three or four times.
“I can do it and not hesitate anymore,” he says. “I don’t ever think I’ll enjoy it, but I can do it.”
Arfa, who wanted the role of Bilbo when he auditioned, said he’s also learned a lot about projecting his voice.
A $5,000 “stars” grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council gave students the chance to work with many experienced performing artists for this play. The grant supports school residencies of three days or more in the arts, sciences and humanities.
Actress Hannah Jarrell from Double Edge has worked with the “dwarves,” helping them prepare for their quest to The Lonely Mountain. These dwarves included grade school children from Heath and teenagers from the Academy of Charlemont’s summer drama workshop, which is now called The Hilltown Youth Theatre Summer Workshop.
Also, Mark Efinger, head of the Academy at Charlemont, has given students a workshop on stage combat for actors, while Mike Prey of Serious Play! gave a workshop on stage combat with poles. The Heath and Mohawk drama clubs also took a field trip to the New England Center for Circus Arts for lessons on how to climb and use aerial silks, and on how to walk on giant wire spools used in some of the scenes.
Another change from conventional school plays is that not all the action will take place on the stage.
Diamond notes that audiences attending Double Edge performances physically move from one setting to the next. Although the Mohawk audience will stay put during “The Hobbit,” the action will take place at several places within the theater.
“Smaug the Dragon burned the city of Dale, and so they built Lake-town, a city on stilts,” said Diamond. For Mohawk’s production, Mike Freeman built a rear stage to serve as Lake-town. Diamond says about 25 to 30 percent of the play’s action will happen in the back of the theater or along the sides.
“It’s supposed to be an epic journey,” he said.
Artists, musicians, actors and craftsmen from Mohawk towns who have worked on this production include: Julia White and Leanne Blaszak, actor training; Rachel Silverman, Polly Anderson, Sara Townsley and Laura Iveson, set design; Sean Conlon, lighting design; Carin Burnes and Jessica Robinson, costumes; Jim Markham, props; Kelly Flaherty, Barbara Harris and Maryellen Abbatiello, hair and make-up. Local musicians performing with the students include Kate Hennessy of Buckland, drumming, and Andrew Kinsey of Ashfield, bagpipe.
Guest artists included movement and actor training with Jarrell; Pan Morigan of Chrysalis Theatre, voice coach; Mike Pray and Matt of Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble; and Cynthia McLaughlin, choreography.
So many people have helped with this play that Diamond considers it “a 21st-century theatrical barn-raising.”
“The Hobbit” will be performed Friday, March 8, at 7 p.m., Saturday, March 9, at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, March 10, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $7 per adult and $5 for students and senior citizens. They may be bought online from the school’s website:
Tickets can also be purchased from the school office, from Mocha Maya’s or Mo’s Fudge Factor in Shelburne Falls, Elmer’s in Ashfield, and World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield. Also “The Hobbit” chocolate bars ($2), created by candy maker Michelle Olanyk, are available in those shops, as a fundraiser for the Mohawk drama program.
For those who can’t come to the Mohawk performances in March, “The Hobbit” will be presented this summer during the Hilltown Youth Theatre Summer Workshop. Students in the workshop will hone their roles from July 22 to Aug. 10. The workshop will end with an outdoor performance at Mohawk and an outdoor performance at the Academy at Charlemont.
One of Diamond’s goals is to create more opportunities for students in collaborating schools to work together and learn from each other.
In a grant application for the collaborative play, Principal Lynn Dole wrote: “It is a cost-effective way to bring professional companies and performers into the schools in a way that each of our small schools could not possibly do individually. Rather than seeing the public and private high schools in our rural area as competitors, we are building on our potential to collaborate effectively ... along the lines of the Five Colleges example we see in the Pioneer Valley.”
Staff reporter Diane Broncaccio has worked at The Recorder since 1988. Her beat includes west county. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or: 413-772-0261, ext. 277.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.