Even the best authors sometimes need a little bit of help to get words on paper, and sometimes, that inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. In the Backstage Theatre’s newest production, “Oz,” playwright Patrick Shanahan imagines how that thread of inspiration might have played out in the creation of L. Frank Baum’s literary classic “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
The play, which makes its regional premier Friday, July 11, in Breckenridge, is set in 1900s Chicago in Baum’s cluttered study, which has been infiltrated by a little girl named Dot. Baum is writing a book that is woefully without title or ending, and Dot, a tough street kid, provides the catalyst for his imagination. The house’s Irish maid, Bridgey, helps Dot and Baum create Oz’s memorable characters out of items found in the study, and each takes on multiple roles as they act out various scenes from the beloved book.
“What Patrick Shanahan, the writer, does is to reimagine how L. Frank Baum might have come up with the idea of the ‘Wizard of Oz,’” said Backstage veteran Christopher Willard, who directs the show and also plays the flustered but good-natured Baum. “He didn’t have much of an idea going in, and with the help of this Irish maid and this girl who steals into his place, they can tell the rest of the story.”
Willard said the characters and storylines developed by the trio in the study will be familiar to fans of the original book, though Baum, Dot and Bridgey have personalities all their own.
“Bridgey is the maid, and she’s a little strict because she’s an immigrant, so she’s trying to keep it all in order,” said Susan Harrison, of Breckenridge, who plays Bridgey. “But I think deep down, really, she’s kind of like Dot, the main character, the Dorothy character, as the play goes on.”
At first, Bridgey dislikes Dot because she comes in and makes a big mess out of things, but as the play goes on, Bridgey realizes Dot has had a childhood similar to her own, Harrison said.
“She loosens up and likes Dot a lot and becomes part of this journey that all three of these characters go on,” Harrison said. “Certain moments in the play remind her of her childhood, and we see her loosen up as the play goes on. She becomes the witch character, because that’s the matronly, strict character, but she also plays Glinda, the good witch, at the end, which is a softer personality.”
Tricia Moreland, 13, who stars as Dot, said she could relate her own learning process through the production of the play to Dot’s character development.
“Sometimes, I feel like some of me is coming through in Dot because she’s definitely in a learning experience, and there’s been a lot of that,” Moreland said. “She’s overcoming tough times, which everyone has to do. I feel like there’s a lot of ways that we relate.”
Moreland, who got her start at the Backstage Theatre as Fern in last year’s “Charlotte’s Web,” said her character also embarks on a personal journey as the play unfolds.
“I like the way that she develops throughout the show,” Moreland said. “She starts off really rough, kind of, and street smart, but she softens through the show, and I think that she learns a lot.”
Capture your imagination
The constantly inventive, 55-minute play moves very quickly, Willard said, and the storytelling is analogous to the work of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault.
“He found this perfect mix of fantasy elements with storytelling, more about morals and lessons, like the Grimm stories were famous for,” Willard said of Shanahan’s writing. “It’s a perfect mixture of just the right elements that capture the imagination and keep you fascinated and enthralled with what will happen next.
“We take items in that study and build those various characters. The Scarecrow is built out of a birdcage and some old clothing pieces that are hanging on the coat rack. The Tin Man is a large milk pail and a coal bucket for a head. Once all of those friends are built, I get to bring them to life with puppetry and voices; that’s a lot of fun.”
Harrison said imagination plays an important role in the production, keeping kids entertained and taking adults into that creative zone, too.
“Imagination is so important in life,” she said. “And as the play unfolds, at first, it’s kind of chaotic with all of these random things being pulled out to become whatever character or prop in the show, and pretty quickly, your mind goes to the place where a birdcage is a scarecrow and a blanket becomes the lion. It reminds me of my childhood, where you have that crazy imagination and the possibilities are endless.
“And it’s just kind of fun to make a mess on stage, too,” she added with a laugh.
Appeal for all ages
Harrison said “Oz” shines a light on how the creative process might work that leads to books like “The Wizard of Oz” or even the more contemporary “Harry Potter.” “It’s a reimagining of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ that can appeal to both children and adults,” she said. “Adults can kind of see where Frank Baum was coming from at the time and maybe where he got some of his ideas for the show because writers are real people, too. There’s so much stuff going on, on stage, that I don’t know how kids couldn’t be entertained. It’s so action-packed, almost frantic at moments.”
Getting up on stage in front of an audience and playing off that energy will be exciting, Moreland said.
“I think they will like it,” she said. “Since ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a classic, it’s kind of a new twist on it, something they probably haven’t seen before. It’s short, but it’s really sweet and it’s a heartfelt show.”
“Obviously, the themes that he touches upon, the theme of home and friendship and goodness, all of those are very relevant: always have been and always will be,” Willard said.