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Students find their creativity in 'Hobbit'

A drama teacher helps Carrollwood Day students bring Gandalf and Bilbo to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2003

ODESSA -- Sydney Price showed up for drama rehearsal at Carrollwood Day School and was greeted by a wizardly vision.

"Oh, my gosh, is that actually Daniel?" Price said, suspiciously eyeing eighth-grader Daniel Fernandez in his Gandalf the Grey costume.

Complete with a pointy wizard's hat, a bulbous fake nose and a flowing gray beard, Fernandez was the spitting image of the benevolent magic man in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

Fernandez and Price are two of the 94 day school students participating in the school's ambitious spring drama production. Directed by performing arts teacher Walter Bitner, the play features 38 middle school students and 56 elementary school students.

"We've done musicals the last few years, so I was looking for something different," Bitner said. "The excitement level of the cast is something I've never seen. They're learning lines, they're paying attention, they're just so engaged in it."

Parents are getting in on the act, too. Tony Huber built all of the play's sets in his garage. Former cosmetic professional Lauren Fleming handles all of the makeup duties. And Susan Cissna and a team of seamstresses made all of the costumes.

Bitner said the kids are enjoying the show because of the recent popularity of The Lord of the Rings movies, but they're also learning a lot.

"There are a tremendous amount of educational elements," Bitner said. "It's introduced all the children to the literature behind the play. And they're memorizing lines, acting, and are part of the designing and building of their own costumes. So there's been a lot of hands-on art and design."

For inspiration, Bitner rented out a theater at the AMC Veterans movie complex the week The Two Towers opened so the entire cast could see it.

"He has generated a lot of excitement," said Carrollwood Day School marketing director Erma Rufkess. "Usually we've done musicals, so this was a big change for us."

"I think this show is pretty unique," Bitner said. "It has a lot of appeal with the general public because of the popularity of the Tolkien books."

It certainly is with lead actor Michelle Salem, who will portray Bilbo Baggins.

"Actually, you look like a girl," said Price, the sixth-grade theater critic, appraising Salem's makeup job.

"Thank you," Salem said.

-- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at

If you go

Carrollwood Day School's presentation of The Hobbit is March 18 at 7 p.m. at the Louise Lykes Ferguson Hall, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $10, and the show is open to the public. For tickets, call the TBPAC box office at (813) 229-7827.

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