The first time Craig Taylor Brown put his love of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings on display in Blount County, he was met with an unpleasant reception. As an eighth-grader at Union Elementary in the mid-1970s, he did a book report on “The Hobbit” and discovered that his classmates weren’t as familiar with Middle-earth as he was.
“It wasn’t completely understood, and some of the kids laughed at me,” says Brown, who recalls that the other boys in his class reported primarily on books about racecars or sports.
Even in the ‘70s, Tolkien’s “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” novels were classics, but their legions of fans have increased exponentially thanks to film director Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
That’s one reason producer-director Brown isn’t worried about the reaction to the Area Children’s Theatre production of “The Hobbit,” which will run Jan. 20-23, Jan. 27 and Jan. 29-30 at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Maryville.
The other reason is that the 70 kids - ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade - in the theater company voted to do the play.
“They started throwing out ideas, and it seemed like ‘The Hobbit,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ had the most votes,” says Brown. “So after the ‘primary,’ I did the main election, and ‘The Hobbit’ won.
“When an adult picks something, the kids don’t have a buy-in. If they think it’s their idea, they’re more apt to do it.”
Brown, who started ACT last April, says every child in the company will get to make a sound on stage, even if only in a group chant. About 25 kids have “actual speaking parts.”
“That’s more speaking parts than the average kids’ play,” he says. And every character is portrayed by a different actor.
“I don’t believe in doubling roles,” says Brown. “I can’t stand to be doubled as an actor myself. I think it takes away from the character when you do that because you have to get in character for two or three different kinds of people. I refuse to do it, so I don’t want the kids to do it either. Plus, it gives more kids an opportunity to be on the stage.”
Brown’s actors come from Blount and Knox counties, and several participants are siblings.
Third-grader Torin Dailey plays the lead, Bilbo Baggins, and his brother Camden, a fifth-grader who, like Torin, is home-schooled, plays Thorin Oakenshield. Thomas Crout, a 10th-grader at Hardin Valley Academy, portrays the wizard Gandalf, while his twin sister, Elisabeth, is the stage manager and assistant director.
Zachary Massey of William Blount High School plays Great Goblin. Devon Martin from Maryville Intermediate School plays Gollum. Brenna Bentley from Heritage High portrays Elvenking.
The one adult in the production is local wrestling legend “Wildman” Jeff Anderson, who plays the villainous dragon Smaug.
“Jeff actually has a following, so I’m hoping I’ll get some wrestling fans to come just to see him,” says Brown. Even in costume, Anderson will be recognizable, the director says.
“We’re going to make the dragon more of a human-dragon hybrid. That’s actually the hardest part of staging ‘The Hobbit’ - putting the dragon out there. Most people think of a dragon as being really big. Jeff’s a big guy anyway; he’s bigger than me. The costume designer made him some wings that when he stands up, they fold out, and when he bends down, they fold down. That will make him appear bigger.”
Brown “discovered” costume designer Karen Topor when he directed “Doctor Dolittle” for the Primary Players. He saw a photo of her son, Nolan, dressed in a Civil War uniform she’d made, and he recommended her to the costume designer. Since then, she has done costumes for “The Music Man” and “On Golden Pond.”
He was thrilled when Topor applied to work on “The Hobbit.”
“Karen is a very resourceful person,” says Brown. They budgeted $10 per costume, and “she came in under budget.”
Brown, who organized the Downtown Film Festival in November (and plans to repeat it this year), has financed ACT himself.
“It is expensive,” he says. “The first two shows that I did, I lost a lot of money on. I didn’t lose money on the film festival (Downtown Film Festival held at the Capitol in November), and I don’t think I will on this.”
Brown’s theatrical pursuits are a combination of community spirit and semi-professional interest, not experience.
He was in a handful of productions growing up, playing the “third spearholder on the left at Fort Craig in second grade,” acting in “Great Smokies” at Union Elementary in eighth grade, playing John Willard in “The Crucible” at Heritage High and portraying a Roman soldier in the Smoky Mountain Passion Play for two summers as a teen.
“I got paid for that,” Brown says of the latter, but it wasn’t much of a professional debut. He got to taunt Jesus Christ, but that was it.
“The first year that I was in it, I lost the only speaking line I had because I had a Southern accent, and the director hated me,” he recalls. “He yanked the line from me. He said, ‘That won’t do in my play.’”
After high school, Brown enlisted in the U.S. Army and went to the University of Tennessee where he was in ROTC and got his commission. He spent his junior year at Maryville College and then graduated from Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J., while he was stationed at Fort Dix, N.J.
He took a few years off from the Army in the ‘90s but went back after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and retired as a captain with 20 years of service about six months after finishing a tour in Iraq in 2008.
Brown, the oldest of eight siblings, returned to Blount County in 2008 to help his mother, Carolyn Taylor Grigg, after his stepfather became terminally ill. In addition to producing and directing projects, he’s acted in about 10 plays and also done some commercials.
“I’m blessed to have moved back to this area, and I couldn’t find a job, so I started doing things that I’d been wanting to do,” says Brown. “Not everything’s been successful.”
Brown is happy with what he’s accomplished, citing the late Libba Moore Gray, his favorite high-school teacher, as an inspiration. He also appreciates the parents and others who have contributed time, money and materials. The Maryville High School drama department loaned him forest sets from “Robin Hood: The Legend Continues.” He’s even gotten help from a childhood friend, James Dixon, whose daughter, Mary, is playing a hobbit.
Brown hadn’t seen Dixon since high school, but the Alcoa, Inc., engineer designed sets for him.
“What was cool about it was, I had to sit down and take an hour to figure something out, but I’d tell him what I wanted, and he’s got it figured out in his head in a moment,” says Brown. “I recommend all theater producers get an engineer’s kid in your play.”
Brown is producing “The Hasty Heart” at the end of February at the Capitol, with Steve Trigg directing the adult cast. His next project with ACT will be not a play but a film this spring.
“I’m going to write a story and film it, instead of having a stage play,” he says. “I’m going to have a feature film with kids. That’s unheard of, and it gives the kids a different perspective of acting that they’re not going to get anywhere else, or at least the average kid. Film acting and theater acting are two totally different animals.”
As far as the audience, however, it’s the same concept.
“If family and friends will come to see a stage play, they will come to see a film,” says Brown.
“The Hobbit” times and dates are:
7 p.m. Jan. 20-21 and Jan. 27; 2 and 7 p.m. Jan. 22 and Jan. 29; and 2 p.m. Jan. 23 and Jan. 30. The “red carpet premier” is on Friday, Jan. 21. Thursday, Jan. 20, is “Family Night.”
All productions are at the Capitol Theatre, 127 W. Broadway Ave., Maryville.
Tickets are $10 for 13 years old and older and $5 for 12 years old and younger. Area Children’s Theatre has a web page at www.areachildrenstheatre.com and is also on Facebook. Tickets are available at the Capitol or through a PayPal link on the website and/or Facebook.