BWW Interview: Grand Adventures Behind the Scenes in Greg Banks' World Premiere THE HOBBIT at CTC
Accept an invitation to a grand adventure when Children's Theatre Company (CTC) of Minneapolis produces a condensed, world premiere version of J.R.R, Tolkien's "The Hobbit." The popular novel, which happens to be a best selling children's book of all time, has remained in print since being published in 1937. This classic, literary legend will be transformed by British actor, director and playwright Greg Banks, who travelled from his home in the Cotswolds, England, just north of Bath, to frigid and then spring-like Minnesota so he could direct the production. From his cozy, Cotswolds environment, Banks' renown hails from rewriting literary classics into a condensed version where the story shines, especially in theater for young audiences.
The CTC's world premiere involves an adaptation by Banks along with two musicians, five actors, twelve instruments and an original score written by Thomas Johnson, another Brit who has collaborated with Banks numerous times. Banks began his own quest with CTC Artistic Director Peter C. Brosius in 2002 with "Antigone"-From there, Brosius and Banks embarked on "Sleeping Beauty" (2005), "Huck Finn," (2006 and 2015), "Romeo and Juliet" (2008), "Robin Hood,"(2010), "A Wrinkle in Time" (2011), "Pinocchio" (2012 and 2016), "Charlotte's Web" (2013), and "Jungle Book" (2015) for a total of twelve productions. The small cast adaptations allow audiences to envision fresh insight into these legendary stories and plays, while "The Hobbit," first commissioned by CTC in January 2018, finally arrived on stage in March, 2019.
In an interview with Banks during an early rehearsal in Minneapolis at CTC, the playwright intimated he enjoyed these small cast adaptations where one actor plays multiple roles. He personally, and he hopes audiences and especially children, will "delight in actors changing roles which allows you [the playwright] to tell a story in an imaginative way."
Banks continues, "The actors [on stage] shift personas [when they change roles]. Everyone has several personas in real life; friend, parent, partner, child, employee, employer, etc.. We model that in these adaptations, that characters switch their roles and that people are an unfixed and changing persona...This is what kids do when they play...they imagine themselves being a variety of people and personalities."
In Banks' version of "The Hobbit," he also envisioned a burned out set, similar to a skeletal staircase, where a charred grand piano resembles the Dwarves lost culture burned by the dragon. The instrument becomes a centerpiece to the production's score. This represents the displaced Dwarves, who now live in remnants of their lost homeland, once maintained a great culture and palatial city that no longer exists. The Hobbit and the dwarves also search for restoration and their lost treasure the dragon Smaug guards. Even though their costumes appear disheveled and somehow timeless, these designs tell the audience clues to the story themes.
The piano also represents Johnson's musical score, which underpins the themes of an epic story and the adventures encountered in the play. The music adds another dimension and engages the audience as a character unto itself, often leading the action, or as Banks says: "Creates a larger size for the piece...lifts it [the production] when the moods shift...breaks up the narration and tells the story when time passes."
Banks further reviews the adaptation process with passion. The playwright processes in his own words by saying : "How exciting theatrically...a production can play with precision when trimming the cast to five actors and telling a story in an hour and forty minutes. Add to this, the shifts and changes to the characters seen on stage, when the script comes alive through an actual, live production."
In the live, world premiere, the scarred world rises from the ashes of a terrible war, Banks states, "I love the adventure-and to think about the their quest for gold and wealth. All this can be a bit scary at times, a battle over a treasure, gold. In "The Hobbit," the play asks the questions: 'What's required to make a moral stand? What wealth is worth "a quest" or war for?"
Ultimately this quest suggests a crucial relationship growing between the hobbit Bilbo and a dwarf king, Thorin that relates how both grow personally through a crisis. Their relationship combined along with their exciting adventures to recapture a treasure is, as Banks states in the interview: "Is perfect for young audiences, because theatergoers encounter eagles, goblins, trolls, wolves, spiders--frightening spiders--and of course, a dragon. By the end of this inspiring quest, Thorin says to Bilbo: "You risked everything for us. Not for treasure or glory but because we needed you. If more of us valued food, good cheer and friendship above gold, it would be a merrier world."
Wise words from Tolkien to ponder during the production process. At the end of the interview, Banks returns to directing the CTC cast in a scene where they enter the treacherous Mirkwood forest, as the music sings, "where the darkness will drown us." In dark times, Banks' very imaginative world premiere "The Hobbit," shows he believes, "The adventure, suspense and restoration will help us 'surprise ourselves,' all of us, when we see how to work for others and the greater good." What a theatrical and thoughtful adventure to experience this spring!
Children's Theatre Company presents World Premiere Hobbit through April 14. For further information or tickets to the world premiere, please visit: www.childrenstheatre.org.