The Atlanta Journal Constitution
January 29, 2001

A Dragon Comes to Life
Staff Reporter

They are subterranean stars of the dark in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy tale "The Hobbit."

The slimy Gollum is a lonely lake-dwelling creature who engages our reluctant hero, Bilbo Baggins, in a game of riddles.

The dragon Smaug is described by the author as "an immeasurable beast" who guards a stolen treasure by sleeping "on his costly bed."

Since both are delightful scene-stealers in the popular Alliance Children's Theatre production of "The Hobbit," we're happier than Bilbo in a bakery to provide this brief backstage look at their magical creation.

Gollum and Smaug, you see, are connected in ways the audience may not realize.

Justin Welborn, the 27-year-old actor and puppeteer who plays Gollum with otherworldly brio, is one of the five people it takes to make Smaug come to life. During the dragon's scene with Baggins, Welborn sits inside the body of the steel-framed Smaug and manipulates the steering wheel that moves his neck and head.

"It's kind of like a sweat lodge in there," he said, emerging from a demonstration.

Other cast members work the dragon's mouth, his tail and the fog machine that produces his breath. Cast member Jim Hubbert provides the articulate serpent's voice.

Michael Benedict, 35, the props-department veteran who developed Smaug --- "my most exciting project" --- took a month to plan construction and more than five weeks to build the serpent at a ballpark cost of $3,000 to $4,000.

Tolkien fan Welborn, on the other hand, said he's been preparing most of his life to play the disturbed Gollum, a former hobbit who refers to himself as "my preciouss" and loses his powerful ring to the gentle Baggins.

Welborn relishes Gollum's range of emotions. "Unlike Smaug, Gollum can't be just bad," he explained. "He has to be pitiful as well."

It's a portrayal that has dazzled young audiences, sometimes to an alarming degree.

At a recent performance "a couple kids were yelling to me, 'Kill him! Kill him!' --- for Gollum to stab Bilbo," said Welborn.

The show will play to more than 30,000 schoolchildren before ending its run Feb. 24.


Performances at 2:30 and 7 p.m. today. Tickets for the early show are $25 (includes lunch, puppet-making and comedy show); later show is $10-$12.50. 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Feb. 24. $10-$12.50. (Feb. 3-4 shows are sold out.) Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E. 404-733-5000