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To truly understand a role, an actress doesn't have to walk a mile in the character's shoes. Sometimes she just needs to read a little.

To prepare to take on the lead roles for the Chattanooga Theatre Centre Youth Theatre's productions of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Madeline's Christmas," Maggie Meller, 8, didn't strap on a pair of Mary Janes, but she did draw on her familiarity with the source material.

"I read 'Madeline' when I was younger, and I loved those books," Maggie said. "Reading books lets you know how the character is supposed to be, whether it likes this thing or that thing, and how you're supposed to say your lines."

Maggie's acting career began just after her fifth birthday when she took on the role of an orphan and townsgirl in a production of the musical "Oliver" at the Signal Mountain Playhouse.

Maggie's older brother, Eric, now 15, and sister, Hannah, now 13, were also cast in the production. Her mother, Amy Meller, said that letting 5-year-old Maggie audition was an experiment.

"We thought, 'Well, sign her up, and we'll see if she can do it,'" Meller said. "She did great, for being so young."

At the time, Maggie was three years younger than the minimum age for the production, and the director was hesitant to let her take part, but her performance exceeded everyone's expectations, Meller said.

The next fall, Maggie took part in the Youth Theatre's production of "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing," under director Maria Chattin-Carter, who later cast her in both "Alice" and "Madeline."

Although she said she was impressed with Maggie's level of energy, it was her maturity, both in how she approached her roles and which roles she chose to audition for, that made her stand out from her peers.

"It's like working with a small adult, almost," Chattin-Carter said. "A lot of kids will just come in and audition for anything. Maggie is very mature about that and meticulous about what she auditions for."

During the height of rehearsals, Maggie often spent between 12 and 15 hours a week at the Theatre Centre. By the time she finished, there was often time for little more than homework (done in the car) and bedtime, but Maggie said she enjoyed every second she spent on stage.

"I loved spending a bunch of time there," she said. "There were so many really, really nice people. I knew they were going to take care of me. I felt really loved."

In January, Maggie will audition for a role in the Youth Theatre's spring musical "A Year with Frog and Toad" based on the children's books by Arnold Lobel. She's already started reading.


CLAIM TO FAME

Maggie Meller played lead roles in two Chattanooga Theatre Centre Youth Theatre plays, "Alice in Wonderland" and "Madeline's Christmas," when she was 6 and 7 years old, respectively.

ABOUT HER

Age: 8.

Grade: Third grade at Nolan Elementary.

Dream role: Glinda from "Wicked."

Favorite actors: Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato.

Hobbies: Swimming, softball and soccer.

Next up: Maggie will audition in January for "A Year with Frog and Toad" at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre.

TALENT SHOW

Do you know a child age 12 or younger with a precocious talent in academics, athletics or the arts? The Times Free Press is searching for children to feature in "Talent Show," which will appear in the Life section on Tuesdays. To nominate a child as a possible subject of a future feature article, e-mail staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or call him at 423-757-6205.

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