The Wizard of Oz has been a large part of my life, and many lives, for decades upon decades. Watching the movie as a young child is one of my earliest memories of being in awe of movie magic—everything they achieved at such an early stage of cinema still blows my mind. Even the stage version has always been, to me, a reminder of the wonders a stage crew’s ingenuity can achieve. So, suffice to say I’m really excited for this show.

And so is the community as a whole. There is quite a lot of buzz for this production. So, to help increase that buzz Smile Politely sat down with director Jeff Dare, producer Lauren Ramshaw, costume designer Laura Vavrin, and cast members Colleen Bruton (Dorothy), Kari Croop (Aunie Em/Glinda), and Jim Dieker (Uncle Henry/Emerald City Guard).

Smile Politely: Jeff, you seem to have a penchant for musicals with large casts. Is there something in particular you like about large casts?

Jeff Dare: I like the technical challenge that usually comes with shows that have large casts. There’s something about it all...I don’t know. When it comes to shows like this, I enjoy sitting down with spreadsheets and figuring out who’s on which page and what side folks are coming in at and all those nitty gritty details

SP: I love how the movie sets a wonderful standard for use of movie magic for its era, but I imagine with the stage show it’s pushing cast and crew ingenuity when it comes to figuring out ways to execute the more magical aspects of the show. So, what has that been like coming up with and executing those ideas?

Dare: It definitely is a technical challenge getting everything working the right way. Just last night, we had a paper tech [a run through where you sit down with the designers and go through the show and look at all cues and effects] and we were there for longer than the show runs working out all of those cues. That was pretty fun. We do have to be ingenious. There’s quite a bit of that, and we’re lucky to have a staff that is good at those technical ideas and coming up with creative solutions.

Laura Vavrin: Costuming the main characters is easy. It is more to do with the ensemble. One of the things is the poppies. One of the things I’ve been struggling with is how to get it to look correct. But mostly it’s time consuming. Once you get started it’s easy. I’ve enjoyed it because I get to kind of think outside the box, especially when I was doing the Tin Man. It was like, okay, we want him to look like tin, but we can’t work with it. So it was going into Menards and figuring out different solutions for materials to use.

Smile Politely: Lauren, how has it been for you as producer of the show?

Lauren Ramshaw: It’s been great. This has actually been the first show I’ve produced, so there’s been a bit of a learning curve. It’s been helpful that this has been our collaboration with the Virginia Theatre and Champaign Park District, because we’ve been able to share some of the marketing responsibilities. In the preliminary conversations I’ve had and with some of the promotional events we’ve already done, people are excited about the show. They love the yellow brick road, and fantastical Oz land, so I think there’s a good buzz around it. The production staff has been awesome to work with.

SP: Jeff you’re kind of in between a rock and a hard place with such a beloved show. People are going to look for those things that make them just love the show, but you also want to make it your own creative endeavor. So, what has been your approach to the show to find that balance?

Vavrin: It is interesting trying to figure out what is going to work, and what is feasible. I’d look online to see what I could find. I Googled different things. Looked on Pinterest. I kind of drew from different aspects. I know my main thing with Emerald City was green. So, trying to find as many green things as possible. Sometimes you can’t find what you need in the company’s costume closet or have trouble finding other things, so you have to go back to the drawing board. It’s not been too bad, and thank goodness I find these things out instead of two days before the show.

Dare:  I feel like we’ve worked hard to find the balance. There have actually been three things that have helped us. It’s not only like finding the balance between what was portrayed in the movie 80 years ago and changing it up a little; putting our own spin on it. It’s not just that. Like you said [Laura], figuring out what is feasible, because we could have a really cool idea and it just doesn’t work because of time or budget or physics. You can’t defy physics, it turns out, in theatre.

Smile Politely: To cast members, especially Colleen, you have some shoes to fill. What has it been like finding the balance between the original inspirations and bringing yourself into the characters?

Colleen Bruton (Dorothy): Yeah. So, we did a lot of work the first couple of weeks with Jeff. Reading the lines as if they were words we’d actually say, and not these timeless words that were very overacted, one might say, in the movie just because of the time period. But we wanted to make it seem really genuine, and like we were real people saying real lines. So, I think that was really helpful in approaching and not copying the movie in that way but making the characters our own and giving them like human characters instead of these cartoony qualities.

Kari Croop (Auntie Em/Glinda): Just an interesting aspect of that, and maybe Jim can speak to this too because we’re playing characters that are both in the real world and flip to playing these very fantastical characters in Oz. At least for me and my part in the film, they didn’t choose to do that in the film. They have a different actress for Auntie Em and for Glinda. So, for me in the show I feel like Glinda has to be otherworldly and big and ridiculous to kind of create that magic for you because that is your introduction to Oz, Dorothy. But I’m playing that as almost a foil to how I’m trying to play Auntie Em which is more of a human being and a complicated person.

Jim Dieker (Uncle Henry/Emerald City Guard):  Yeah. Kari is right on. Uncle Henry is a real person, and the Emerald City Guard, he is a caricature. Of all the characters, he has drank the Emerald City Kool-Aid. He’s just over the top, which is great fun. Uncle Henry is just salt of the Earth.

SP: Speaking of the Virginia Theatre, how much are you looking forward to getting onto that stage?

Dieker: I just love that stage. This will be my 30th plus time on that stage, and I just love it.

Croop: Yeah. It’s just a great stage to perform on. My first show with CUTC was in 2007, and it was at the Virginia. And we sold it out, and it was just an amazing experience. It’s been a while for me, and I’m excited to get back on it.

SP: The beloved status of The Wizard of Oz, and how ingrained it is in our culture are obviously reasons why people would attend the show, why should someone come to this particular production and how is it going to set itself apart?

Dare: I think one of the things that I am really looking forward to seeing, and I hope other people are too, is the idea that these characters, even the ones in this fantasy land, are played a little more humanly than in other performances. They have a little more heart. You can see reactions. They’re not just cartoon characters.

Croop: Well, it is the 80th anniversary of the film. That in of itself is exciting for me, because I’m kind of a film buff. I think it’s a fun time to revisit it, and just the amazing local talent Jeff has put together. Plus, the production staff. I think it all is something to see on the local, hometown stage, the Virginia Theatre. No place like home.

Dieker: I don’t think there is anything quite like live theatre. I mean a movie is great. Wizard of Oz is obviously an American classic. But to see a live stage production with live actors interacting with each other I think is priceless.

Bruton: I think there’s something really special about community theatre, and doing this show. We aren’t doing this for money. We’re doing this because we love theatre, care for each other, and want to bring this story to the community. We want to share it with everyone. And it’s a story about family, and home. I think doing that with people who consider community theatre to be family, is really sweet. I think you get a different read of the story through it.

Ramshaw: I think community theatre in general is impressive. And this show with its effects and what our production staff has been able to pull off is impressive. These are people with 9-5 jobs coming here after work and putting in a lot of effort. It’s kids on summer break that are doing instead of being at the pool. Everyone is doing it to give something to the community. To give something to the audience. It’s an impressive example of what a large group of people can do together.

The Wizard of Oz
Virginia Theatre
August 1st through August 4th
203 W Park Ave., Champaign
All shows at 7 p.m. with the exception of Sunday August 4th's matinee at 2 pm. 
Tickets: $19 regular, $15 students/seniors, & $10 children
Order tickets online here.