This past weekend I had the supreme pleasure of taking my students to their first theatrical production. While many teachers are working for the weekend and can’t wait to be rid of their students for a few days, I actually enjoy getting to spend time with mine outside of class. As an ESL teacher, I have found my students to be full of culture and diversity, but their lives are rather deplete of cultural experiences. Many of them are socioeconomically disadvantaged and their parents cannot afford to take them to plays, concerts, films, or museums, nor do they have the time, since so many of them have to work multiple jobs just to support their families. Therefore, I have always considered it part of my job, though not in my contract, to fill in the gaps in my students’ lives by providing them with rich, cultural experiences that will enhance their learning experiences in the classroom.
W.T. Woodson, a local high school ( http://www.wtwdrama.org), was presenting a theatrical adaptation of The Hobbit, dramatized by Patricia Gray. I was able to treat a select group of my students out for an afternoon of theatre and provide them the opportunity to compare and contrast a staged version of The Hobbit to a film adaptation. When we arrived at the school, my students excitedly took in the foreign environment of the theatre. Being first-time theatre patrons, they were unfamiliar with programs, cast headshots, intermission, and other concepts that seasoned theatregoers take for granted. Not being able to contain their excitement, my students eagerly told anyone who would listen to them about Teaching Tolkien. Overhearing their conversation, some of the theatre booster volunteers introduced us to Woodson drama department’s artistic director, Terri Hobson, who was instantly intrigued by my young students’ enthusiasm. She took us backstage and gave each of my dwarves the opportunity to meet her dwarves.
Excited for the chance to meet their “doppelgänger”, my students felt like VIPs that these busy young thespians took some of their pre-show preparation time to greet them. Eager for the show to begin, we claimed our front row seats and were ready to be entertained.
As we waited for the lights to go down, I asked my students to comment on what they were about to view:
Ori– “It’s going to be better than the movie because it’s going to be live and in front of us.”
Bofur– “I think the play will be better than the book, but not better than the movie.”
Bilbo– “I think the high school Bilbo looks better than Bilbo in the movie.”
I knew my students were going to have a great time when Ori leaned over as the lights went down and whispered in my ear, “Oh, this is going to be good!” Even in the first scene, he was able to anticipate the action of the actors by remembering the sequence of events in The Hobbit, which he read five months ago. As Gandalf carved “the sign” on Bilbo’s door, Ori nodded his head in recognition. Though this was his first time at the theatre, his prior experience with acting Shakespeare in my class last year had prepared him for the structure of a play. As the lights went down a second time, he said, “..and that’s the end of scene one!”
The kids were giggling audibly by the end of scene two, as they enjoyed watching the uninvited dwarves descend upon Bilbo Baggins. Ori wanted to know if the food they were eating was real, as Bilbo guffawed loudly at the other Bilbo’s onstage antics.
I encourage my students to be critical readers, but was a little taken aback at their criticisms of the production. While they enjoyed it immensely, no details escaped their young eyes as they felt some of the costume choices were inaccurate compared to Tolkien’s descriptions. I tried to explain to them that productions are limited in terms of materials, cost, and time, and used this observation as a way to illustrate the natural limitations of the stage. Even Tolkien agreed that the stage limited the vast expanse of the faerie world and was wary of dramatic depictions of fantasy worlds. Ori was also critical of the young actor portraying Gollum and felt that he could do a better Gollum voice, which he attempted to demonstrate by gurgling “my precious” in the middle of the scene. I assured him this young man was doing a great job and that no one could do justice to Andy Serkis, who was his only point of comparison. Ori may need some schooling in proper play etiquette, as he inhibited my enjoyment of the performance by keeping an audible running tally of each scene.
In the third scene, the actors appeared among the audience members and my students waved to them excitedly as they performed, hoping they would get their attention. Ori corrected Bofur when he said, “there’s Legolas!” “No, it isn’t! Legolas is only in Lord of the Rings. We’re watching The Hobbit“, as he rolled his eyes knowingly. My students were completely mesmerized every time I glanced down the row at them. When the dwarves came upon the trolls, Ori anticipated they would be eating roast mutton, as he remembered me explaining mutton meat to him when we read that part in the book. They loved the battle with the goblins and were impressed with the onstage portrayal of the ring’s powers of invisibility by shining a single stage light upon Bilbo and using the dialogue to convey the message to the audience. Ori realized halfway through the play that contrary to Peter Jackson’s decision to split The Hobbit into three different films, this adaptation covered the entire book. He leaned over to Bofur and said, “maybe this will give us an idea of what we might see in the other two movies.”
At intermission, I asked my students to give me a comment regarding what they thought so far:
Bilbo– “My best part was when the dwarves were fighting the goblins. It was interesting and fun.”
Gloin– “I liked the fighting!”
Bofur– “My favorite part is all of the parts!”
While consuming concessions during intermission, Ori touched us all by asking if they could purchase candygrams for their actor friends to let them know how much they were enjoying the play. I gave each child $1, as I watched them write a personal note of encouragement to their new friends. I was so proud of them at such a generous, unsolicited gesture, and even Bilbo, who usually doesn’t get along very well with Ori, gave him credit by initiating a fist bump as a proverbial peace branch and offering a “good job, man” to his fellow classmate.
Shortly after we began Act II, Ori leaned over to me and asked after Gandalf’s long absence, “where does Gandalf go when he disappears anyway?” I told him Tolkien didn’t really intend for us to know the answer to that question and that only our imagination can possibly answer it. He guessed, “maybe he’s fixing the future or smoking his pipe again.” My students were anxious as to whether or not this production would offer a glimpse at Smaug, since Peter Jackson had only provided them with a teaser. They were so pleased and excited to not only see real smoke and a real dragon but also real gold! The kids noticed that Smaug was killed by Thorin, which did not happen in the book, but made a much simpler denouement than staging an epic battle scene in Laketown.
As the curtain closed, I asked my students to leave me with a final comment:
Bilbo– “That was the best show I’ve ever seen in my entire life!”
Gloin– “They did a really good job!”
Bofur– “They did awesome!”
The show did not end there as my students had the opportunity to go onstage and take pictures with all of the cast and the different pieces of scenery. They enjoyed schmoozing with the actors, asking for autographs, and posing for photos.
Not wanting the wonderful day to be over, we regrettably left our fantasy world we’d enjoyed for the last two hours to return to the world of reality. As we left the lobby, Bilbo mentioned that he had a little bit of spending money left over and asked if he could buy anything else with it. Never one to miss a teachable moment, I used his question as an opportunity for an economics lesson by illustrating the benefits of saving money and suggesting he put his in the bank for something more important, like college. Even on a weekend, a teacher’s work is never done!