270 days in the making
Heart, courage and brains bring the Emerald City to life
By Kristin Kelley, photos by Jeff Montgomery
"The Wizard of Oz" took Benson crowds by storm — or twister rather — during Homecoming weekend Nov. 2-3. But preparing the production was not as easy as clicking a pair of sparkly red heels together.
Producer Cindee Stockstill began preparations last February when she, director Robin Miller, technical directors Britt Lynn and Adam Sullivan, vocal coach Laura Eads, and costumer McKay Murray selected the show.
"We wanted to choose something energetic and family-friendly, something with good values and upbeat humor," says Stockstill.
Plans took flight from there, resulting in a professional musical full of special effects, enchanting sets and of course, raw, classic talent.
Practices started at the beginning of the fall semester and intensified in time commitment until the production premiered. "The week before the show we rehearsed every spare minute we had as we added lighting, orchestra, mikes and costumes," Stockstill says.
Characters defied gravity, flying across stage with special effects from ZFX Flying Effects, an international company that has worked with a range of productions from Broadway to school-based. The actors were hoisted above the stage by a harness and pulley system and glided in and out of scenes, landing on platforms built in either wing.
Professional theatre technician Jonathan Jolly from ZFX stayed on throughout the entire production and trained a crew of six students to work the pulley system. A minimum of three stagehands had to man the apparatus at all times, synchronizing their timing to a tee.
"Coordinating the flying sequences truly was choreography," says Lynn. "It took two people to lift an actor up and one more to move them left to right, counting out the intricate timing."
Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch of the West, played by sophomore Haley Jane Witt of Ooltewah, Tenn., pedaled her bicycle through the air in the wake of a Kansas twister and zoomed overhead on her broomstick, cackling all the way. A twister blew across the stage, sending Dorothy's house spinning and tilting in every direction, guided by two crew members who rocked the seesaw-like mechanism while hidden inside.
Glinda the Witch of the North, portrayed by senior Jillian Shackelford of Bolivar, Tenn., floated above the stage by way of her bubble, a circular metal frame suspended from the catwalk. Nikko, the flying monkey leader played by senior Andy Frye of Searcy, flipped through the air as he descended into the Wicked Witch's castle. In the end, sophomore Paige Edmison of Edmond, Okla., as Dorothy clicked her heels back home, floating skyward off to Kansas.
Cast members and production crew alike built sets and organized costumes and makeup to prepare Benson Auditorium for the wonderful "Wizard of Oz."
Murray oversaw the creation and ordering of costumes for more than 60 cast members, some of whom had up to five changes. Careful planning and organization were essential to keep up with more than 350 costumes — some with three or four pieces each.
She and her staff had to address challenges such as mid-show costume changes for cast members on stilts and making full-grown actors appear like "munchkins" on stage.
"Working backstage is almost like a dance," Murray says. "Everyone has to move on cue to make it work."
Junior Elizabeth Harrell of Brentwood, Tenn., understood the essential nature of backstage timing. Harrell had five character roles — a munchkin, apple tree, snowflake, Ozian waitress and rock — and had to change costumes six times.
Some of her changes, especially to the apple tree, required assistance from others. Harrell said it took two people to carry the costume, and she had to dress backstage because she would not fit in the dressing room.
"It was a serious costume," she said. "I think it had roots in it and everything. I may be stretching the truth a bit, but it really did have branches and apples on it."
Makeup application also required backstage coordination. Under the direction of senior Kaeli Hines of Springdale, Ark., Witt became the bright green Wicked Witch; sophomore Anthony Lytle of Cambridge, Neb., turned into Scarecrow; senior Travis Wisely of O'Fallon, Ill., changed into the gleaming Tin Man; and sophomore Alex Ritchie of Searcy became the Cowardly Lion.
Hines taught most of the actors to apply their own makeup but was always on hand with her four assistants to help in a time crunch. Witt actually had two stunt doubles for Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West in the initial flying scene because her makeup transformation took Hines more than 20 minutes backstage.
For the final scene, Lytle, Wisely and Ritchie had less than two minutes to change out of their elaborate character makeup and appear before the audience as normal farmhands.
"Definitely the hardest part of my job was getting those boys out of their makeup," Hines said. "We did our best to throw on some foundation before they had to run back onstage."
Stage scenery with elaborate sets and fantastic props transported Homecoming crowds to Dorothy's world. Whitney Wash, a sophomore interior design major from Anderson, Ind., put her creative skills to work as props mistress.
She was in charge of finding, buying or creating all the props needed for the show and making sure all were in the right place at the right time. She made the lollipop guild's oversized suckers and hunted down large nail files for Cowardly Lion's makeover.
In addition to her props position, Wash was one of five dog handlers during rehearsals. Stockstill's own miniature schnauzers, Tassie Kai and Tori, served as Toto and understudy, respectively.
Certified canine obedience instructor David White, a behavior counselor in Student Support Services, trained both dogs to obey commands as Toto. White began preproduction training in mid-July, gradually introducing the dogs to such unfamiliar sights and sounds as flying monkeys and screeching witches that would appear in the production.
"I worked them through as many situations as I could," White says. "By the time the cast started working with them, they were accustomed to different interactions."
White also taught five crew members how to handle the dogs.
Senior Anna Dixon of Tallahassee, Fla., a four-time musical crew member, was among White's apprentices. She learned to signal Tassie Kai to run on or off stage and how to hold her when Toto was not in a scene. Handling protocol was essential to maintain a sense of order for the dogs at rehearsals and during shows.
"I had to talk in a level, gentle voice and gesture to Tassie from the other side of the stage," Dixon said. "I couldn't allow any cast members to interact with her unless she was onstage as Toto."
Many may have considered Toto the star of the show; after all, "he" was a scene stealer. But without actors, set builders, makeup artists and prop masters, the yellow brick road could not have been followed to fruition. Audiences' standing ovations proved the production a crowd pleaser, but the eclectic crew's hard work from auditions until the last curtain call ultimately made the show a soaring success.