The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

July 28, 2013

Andra Bryan Stefanoni: Play offers behind-the-scenes look at community theater

PITTSBURG, Kan. — “Hold my broom,” the Wicked Witch of the West requested of me Sunday in the wings of stage right at Memorial Auditorium. “And be careful — it’s loaded.”

She made a last-minute adjustment to her costume, then turned and gave a high-five to her archenemy, Glinda, the Good Witch, as Glinda exited the stage after a particularly good performance in the last showing of Pittsburg Community Theatre’s run of “The Wizard of Oz.”

It was the kind of thing only a cast or crew member gets to see. I’ve been privy to it for six weeks this summer as one of 70 members of the cast, which included my two sons, ages 8 and 12.

What record-setting audiences got to see for the production was more than two hours of theatrics on a massive scale. Many of them asked me in the lobby afterward how we pulled it off. Here’s a sneak peek behind the scenes at what it takes to create such a production:

Six weeks before a show:

• The cast members receive their scripts and songbooks and begin learning lines and where to stand for each line, each song and each scene. That’s called “blocking.”

• Dancers receive instructions from the choreographer for musical numbers, and orchestra members receive their music and begin practicing it.

• The costume designer and her volunteers begin scouring garage sales, thrift stores and the costume closet to create 200 costumes in a variety of themes and sizes.

• Crew members begin crafting sets from Styrofoam — it’s lighter and less expensive than wood. To maximize the budget, time and space backstage, many pieces serve dual roles when they are turned around.

Three weeks before the show:

• Sewing machines are whizzing day and night, and set pieces smell of wet paint.

• Actors are beginning to remember lines without looking at scripts, and dancers are beginning to remember choreography without being prompted.

Two weeks before the show:

• A company arrives to help flying characters learn to use a complicated rigging system that they must wear under costumes.

One week before the show:

• Dances have been memorized, and scenes are being perfected.

• Final touches are being added to costumes, and paint is covering up bare Styrofoam on set pieces.

• We run through three full-dress rehearsals, with an emphasis on quickly getting set pieces on and off between scenes in the dark, and costume changes for actors/dancers who play multiple roles.

• A small troupe of dedicated moms who will never get any credit helps keep 30 Munchkins entertained backstage and ensures their costumes and makeup stay in place from 6:15 p.m. to the curtain call around 10 p.m.

• Adult actors and dancers arrive an hour and a half before each show for stretching, vocal warm-ups, makeup and costumes, and microphone checks.

• We get home each night at 11:30, gobbling up anything we can find to eat before collapsing into bed.

Is it worth it?

Absolutely.

On Sunday, as our final of five performances began, director Jason Huffman shared the good news: “The Wizard of Oz” was, he believes, the best selling show in the history of Pittsburg Community Theatre. The main floor sold out all three nights, the Saturday matinee nearly sold out and the Sunday matinee had an audience of more than 900, for a combined total of 3,400 tickets!

One of those ticket-holders was a New York Times columnist, but the real thrill for me was performing for my community (family, friends, neighbors, former teachers — even my editor!) and performing with my community (a lawyer, city employees, a computer technician, the guy who makes our Subway sandwiches).

Today, we’ll return to our real-life roles with a bit of sadness that it’s all over. But it will be offset by our unforgettable memories.

And our pride that our weeks of hard work made monkeys fly, inspired a cowardly lion to find courage and helped Dorothy find her way home to Kansas.

Yes, Broadway plays may be grand, but give me community theater any day.

FOLLOW ANDRA STEFANONI on Facebook at facebook.com/andrajournalist and on Twitter @AndraStefanoni.

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