Directors Diary: The Wizard of Oz
Tim O’Connor is directing the mega arena production of The Wizard of Oz for the Harvest Rain Theatre, with a cast of 500+ on stages the size of three basketball courts. Cast members range from stage newcomers to Gold Logie winner John Wood.
Harvest Rain produces large-scale arena productions, turning well-known musicals into eye-popping arena spectaculars.
I was completely mesmerized by The Wizard of Oz as a child, so whilst I normally sit in the Producer’s seat, for this one I could not resist taking on the directing duties.
Gather The Mass Ensemble
We run auditions for young performers across the country. The show was headed for Newcastle, Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Perth. We audition 200 performers at a time and take them through a song and dance audition to find a suitable place for them all in the mass ensemble. By the end of the audition process, we saw over 5,000 young people nationwide.
Time To Get Training
Long before we started rehearsals, our team took the young members of our mass ensemble through a dedicated boot camp training program. This gives them a basic crash course in theatre etiquette and stage craft, as more than 70% had never set foot on a stage before.
We see the show as a unique training opportunity for young performers. Our choreographer created a handbook for each participant to work through during a weekend bootcamp in theatre etiquette and some basic performance skills. Towards the end of the training, the mass ensemble of 800 people combined in an exhilarating and exhausting rehearsal.
Devising The Show
One of the key things about the arena shows is that entrances and exits can take a while. We had to find ways to ensure the show had pace, whilst also allowing time for the traffic on and off the stage.
We knew that the chorus would all play Munchkins. We decided to open the Kansas sequence with only a few actors on stage to contrast with Dorothy’s arrival in Oz, when she is greeted by 800 munchkins. The stage would literally explode into life with hundreds of people upon her arrival.
Live Action Meets Animation
We faced the challenge of how to bring the Land of Oz to life on the arena stage. In a traditional theatre, there are fly towers and wing space where you can bring sets on and off as scenes change and transition, but in the arena, you have a big open space and audience on three sides.
The story of Oz is literally a journey, from Kansas to Munchkin Land, to a corn field, to an apple orchard, into a forest, then a field of poppies, then to the Emerald City….and on and on and on. Even if we built sets to depict all the various settings, it would be hard to find a place to store them in the arena.
We were stumped as to how to transport the audience to all these places in a vast arena. I started pondering what might be possible if we created projections to guide us through the fantasy world of Oz.
We hired a nine-metre-tall wall of LED screens, which we placed at the back of our set to display continuous animations.
I then worked with an illustrator and projection company and emailed them almost daily for six months. Ideas flew back and forth - everything from the dusty, sepia landscape of Kansas to the dazzling green vista of the Emerald City.
My favourite sequence to mastermind was the Twister. Through the wonder of animation, we could see the Twister pick up the Kansas farmhouse and then bring the audience right into the eye of the storm.
Designing The Set
I thought that the set for our show would be nothing more than the arena floor and the giant wall of LED screens at the back, but our set designer convinced me that we could do something more interesting.
A structure to sit in front of the LED screens was designed to look like the crumbling ruins of an old castle. A swirling “yellow brick road” lead down from the castle to the centre of the stage. It was a magnificent playground for the actors to make use of, with lots of secret entrances, hidden trap doors, little nooks and platforms and places for the actors to play.
The Costumes You Expect, With A Twist
I had a clear idea that I wanted all of the Oz characters to look like their costumes had been cobbled together from found items – almost as if Dorothy was playing make believe and digging into her dress-up box to clothe the characters in her imagination.
I wanted the characters to be reminiscent of what we all know and love from the movie, but also with a little bit of a twist. We gave the Tinman a baseball cap for a hat instead of the traditional funnel, and the Lion’s costume was more like a big fur coat than anything else, complete with a Scary Spice style wig and some fantastic bling.
Glinda’s costume was a mix of the Glinda from the film and Cyndi Lauper, and the Wicked Witch’s costume was reminiscent of Bellatrix Lestrange from the Harry Potter films (only with green skin, of course.)
The whole look of the characters is familiar but peppered with subtle pop culture references.
How Many Costumes Is Too Many?
One of our biggest headaches was sourcing costumes for the mass ensemble.
Each member of the cast played at least three different characters – a Munchkin, a Poppy and an Emerald City Citizen.
Over 2,500 costumes were used in the show. We searched all over the world for suppliers who could send us enough wigs, unitards, hats, glasses and accessories to fully costume all our performers. Once all of the items were shipped to our headquarters in Brisbane, we had to dedicate one whole wing of our building to just storing the thousands of boxes of costumes needed for over 5,000 performers across the tour.
At times we now feel a bit like an Amazon storehouse, keeping track of hundreds of boxes containing thousands of wigs and costumes.
Putting It All Together
It took six months to devise the choreography for the mass ensemble.
Every member had their track in the show intricately mapped out into a computer program, to accurately predict how 800 people would move around the stage without all crashing into one another.
After exhaustive auditions, we cast a group of eight actors to take on the principal roles in the show, led by Gold Logie winner John Wood playing the role of the Wizard.
We also employed four actors to serve as Mass Captains, who would perform alongside the mass ensemble and help teach the choreography and keep order on stage.
We cast Carly Bettinson, a recent graduate of the Brisbane Academy of Musical Theatre, in the role of Dorothy. She had started out performing in the mass ensemble of one of Harvest Rain’s arena shows, and playing Dorothy was her professional debut.
Rehearsals commenced four weeks prior to opening night. The principals rehearsed at our Brisbane headquarters with me, while the choreography team rehearsed with the mass ensemble in Newcastle (where the show was set to premiere).
It was like working on two different shows in two different cities. I had eight actors in a tiny rehearsal room in Brisbane, while 800 actors rehearsed in a giant Exhibition Hall in Newcastle. The two casts only came together four days before opening night.
We spent almost two weeks in the Newcastle Entertainment Centre, coordinating how the principals would interact with the giant animation screens, and how the mass ensemble would interact with the principals.
Now our challenge is moving the behemoth of a show from city to city. It takes five semi-trailers to hold all our sets, lights, sound and AV equipment, not to mention the thousands of costumes.
Moving Oz around Australia feels kind of like a military operation – it’s a huge undertaking but we love it, and it’s all worth it when you see the effect the experience has on the young people who take part. Seeing the experience through their eyes reminds us of why we got into this business in the first place.
Their passion and enthusiasm energises us and spurs us on. We love what we do and can’t wait to take Oz all around Oz over the next year!
Photography: Glenn Pokorny
Sydney QUDOS Bank Arena - January 25, 2020
Canberra AIS Arena – April 25, 2020
Melbourne Arena - July 2020
Perth RAC Arena - October 2020
Director: Tim O’Connor
Choreographer & Mass Director: Callum Mansfield
Music Director: Dennett Hudson
Set Designer: Fran Hannaway
Head of Wardrobe: Susie Nairn
Illustrator: Elizabeth Botte.
Projection: Craig Wilkinson
Mass Ensemble Manager: Marcelle Wallen.
LED Screens: Woohah Productions