By Stew Slater
If there’s any tiny southwestern Ontario community theatre troupe, using a tiny stage in what was originally a municipally-owned town hall (of which, it should be noted, there are numerous examples) that could pull off a large-sized production of The Wizard of Oz, it would be Embro’s Thistle Theatre.
The organization, after all, once won a Western Ontario Drama League prize for Fiddler on the Roof, and to win the prize they had to load all the props, costumes and equipment into two tractor trailers and transport the production to a neutral location for judging.
And the reason why, according to St. Marys residents Ann Jackson and Landon Hoare, is that — unlike the old Embro Town Hall stage, which truly is tiny — the troupe of actors, costume and prop designers, carpenters, make-up artists, ticket sellers and others who make up Thistle Theatre isn’t “tiny” at all.
Among the onstage cast of the upcoming show, several Embro-area theatre veterans are not participating this time around. Instead, actors have been drawn from places like Tavi-stock, Stratford, St. Marys and Woodstock. That leaves many of the local people to help out in other ways. There’s even an animal trainer in the building for every rehearsal to tackle any challenges with the two live dogs sharing the role of Toto.
“They have a really strong core group of people,” explains Jackson, who has been joining Hoare — as well as two other St. Marys area residents, Shane Simpson and Cindy Nowak — in making three-times-a-week treks to the Oxford County village for rehearsals, leading up to the Thursday, Nov. 22 opening night of the community theatre company’s run of The Wizard of Oz. Two Sunday matinee performances at the approximately 150-seat Old Town Hall venue are sold out; some tickets remain for 7:30 p.m. evening shows on Nov. 22, 23, 24, 28, 29,30, and Dec. 1.
Hoare, who portrays the dual roles of Farmhand Hickory and The Tin Man, has the feeling he’ll get to know exactly what it’s like to need the support of many backstage hands, once the full-costume rehearsals and eventually the full run of the shows begin. He’s already excited about the prospects of his Tin Man costume — “I’m six-foot-one already, and by the time I put the funnel, I’m over seven feet tall!” — and has heard rumours from the Thistle Theatre costume department that efforts are being undertaken to make the rest of the suit “smoke and steam, which will be pretty cool.”
But he has also heard that the costume will have six or more separate components, plus considerable face make-up. Transforming himself from the Kansas-dwelling Farmhand Hickory into the World of Oz-roaming Tin Man won’t be very difficult at the beginning of the play, Hoare insists; but when Dorothy returns to Kansas after her voyage with her newfound friends down the Yellow Brick Road, the St. Marys actor is being granted a little over four minutes to remove the make-up and multiple-piece, stovepipe-style suit, and reconvene onstage as Farmhand Hickory.
“I have a great empathy for actors all of a sudden,” he laughs. “It’s a whole new world.”
In a recent interview with the Journal Argus, Hoare and Jackson recalled the audition process for the Thistle Theatre production. Both of them had just finished their contributions to the St. Marys Community Players’ spring 2012 production of Oklahoma! — Jackson in the acting company; Hoare as musical director.
They were intrigued by Thorndale-based director LauraJean McCann’s innovative approach: group auditions during which participants sang their chosen piece in front of everyone, and later took part in a group improv session.
Hoare, who had never had an onstage role despite considerable experience behind the scenes, stated from the outset that he only wanted the Tin Man role. He admits he was surprised to get it.
Jackson, meanwhile, didn’t get the part she hoped for. She had misgivings about committing to a production taking place a 30-minute drive from her home, but then she gradually got handed more and more responsibilities: offstage female chorus, munchkin, Ozian, jitterbug, poppy/snowflake, and apple-throwing tree. “They just kept piling on the roles, so that made it worthwhile. I’m all manner of flora and fauna.”
Nowak portrays the dual roles of the Wizard and Professor Marvel. Simpson shares duties as an Ozian, jitterbug, tree and munchkin, as well a a lead role among the flying monkeys.
If you’re looking for tickets, it might be best to call 519-421-8589 for the box office. You can order also online at www.ticketscene.ca, but the seat selection process may not be as user-friendly.