WHEN Savannah Stage Company’s rendition of The Wizard of Oz opens, audiences will find they're not in Kansas anymore.
Rather, they’ll be tucked away in a roomy attic, surrounded by the exposed brick, wood beams, and beautiful floors of Ampersand’s topmost story.
Savannah’s most recent production of L. Frank Baum’s classic work of literature is whittled down to its essence thanks to Savannah Stage Company’s devotion to professional theatre and belief in the power of imaginative storytelling.
The tinsel, glitter, and twinkling emeralds are gone. Elaborate makeup and resplendent costumes have been subtracted so audiences can get to the heart of Dorothy and her friends’ experience and learn what it truly means to go over the rainbow.
“This is more stripped down so we can focus on relationships,” Artistic Director Jayme Tinti explains. “Instead of, ‘We’ve got to paint [The Tin Man’s] face silver and get a prosthetic nose, and this scene has to go this way every time, we have to do quick changes’—there’s all this stuff. And all of that can enhance something, but a lot of times, it can get in the way of telling the story. We have none of that. It’s hat on, hat off, vest on, vest off. We trust our audience is imaginative enough to go on this journey with us.”
With a cast of ten taking on multiple roles, Savannah Stage Company knows that fans can follow as actors morph in and out of different characters without caked-on face paint, faux fur, and gingham.
“We don’t put a different person in a different outfit every time they come onstage,” says Tinti. “It’s not our style of storytelling, not our taste. We trust the audience, that they’re going to get it. A vest is going to be enough.”
The company is fond of double casting in their performances. The Wizard of Oz could easily pack thirty-plus people onstage, but the company wants to create the most immersive experience possible by using a limited supply of the strongest tools for the job.
The story begins with a prologue to contextualize the work.
“There’s a whole ‘nother set of circumstances that are happening outside the story of The Wizard of Oz,” Tinti explains. “In the prologue, you’re introduced to the actors that are playing these parts—not with any other words. With simple storytelling. It heightens and enriches the stories we’re telling. It might not be something anybody gets, but it’s there for the actors, and that’s what’s important. It’s a way for the actors to work and grow and tell stories.”
“The show itself has built-in double casting,” Tinti explains of the script. “Whoever plays Auntie Em also plays Glinda the Good Witch. Often, the plays we do already have that in there, so that’s a staple for us: actors playing more than one character. In anything you see of ours, there’s going to be a lot of that.”
Juggling several roles wasn’t the only challenge for the cast. The production doesn’t boast the sweeping studio score audiences have come to expect in theatrical experiences.
Instead of relying on backing tracks pouring out of a PA system, actors, led by Hinesville native and University of Southern Mississippi Master of Fine Arts recipient Hillary Lewis as Dorothy, use their bodies and a few small instruments to create the soundtrack and sound effects.
The production marks several firsts for the Company: first musical, first with a cast this large, and a play in two acts, a rarity for SCC. At the center of the show is a beautiful old piano, discovered online and donated to SSC, played by Ellen Sherrod. Sherrod acts as Musical Director for the production. True to SSC form, she also voices Toto.
“The piano will perform most of the music, and we make lots and lots of sound effects,” says Tinti. “We use kazoo, cowbell, we’ve created a rain stick, a harmonica, a lot of percussion, and our voices. We are creating a whole story with sound, but instead of musicians, it’s just the piano.”
The close quarters of the attic allows the story to unfurl in front of audiences in innovative ways, and SCC can’t wait to share what they’ve gleaned from a timeless, treasured tale.
“We learn something new every day. There’s so much in there!” Tinti shares.
“It’s the fact of that you may need is right around the corner. [Dorothy] says it there at the end, about how, if she ever needs to find something, to look in her backyard first. All these people need something, need a reason to go over the rainbow. When you get there, you realize it’s right there. The broader idea is that your imagination can take you anywhere, and that’s what we as a company are focusing on. In this attic, your imagination and bravery can take you anywhere, over the rainbow, and back home.”