As the cast of The Wizard of Oz prepare to take audiences on a magical adventure along the yellow brick road at Leeds Playhouse this month, it’s time to meet Lucy Sherman and Agatha Meehan, who will star as alternate Dorothys during the festive run from 20 November 2019 to 25 January 2020.
These images show the young local actors with their new best friends, Doris and Scruff, who will be playing Toto, Dorothy’s faithful four-legged companion on her journey to the Emerald City alongside a stunning puppet designed and created by Charlie Tymms (Life of Pi, Sheffield Theatres, Running Wild, UK tour).
In this timeless story of adventure and friendship, directed by James Brining (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sunshine on Leith, Leeds Playhouse) and designed by Simon Higlett (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Leeds Playhouse), the Munchkins and a number of ensemble roles are being played by local children in two teams – Team East and Team West.
James opted to cast a young ensemble and two real-age Dorothys to heighten the tension and ramp up the energy of this timeless tale: ‘Having a child play Dorothy brings out the jeopardy of the story. As soon as a child steps into Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the whole energy of the piece changes. There’s more vulnerability and an increased sense of responsibility on behalf of the adults for the child, for someone so young and small. I’m also very conscious of having young people in the audience watching the story and identifying with the protagonist – that’s a very powerful thing.’
The Wizard of Oz will play in Leeds Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre, which reopens this Christmas following the building’s dramatic £15.8m redevelopment.
The theatre will host a sing-along performance of The Wizard of Oz on Friday 13 December, inviting the audience to dress up, sing out and join in the fun. Relaxed and Dementia Friendly performances will also be available, and there will be a selection of bespoke wrap-around and in–school activities led by the Playhouse’s award-winning Creative Engagement team.
There’s no place like home
Leeds Playhouse Artistic Director James Brining talks about his fresh, dynamic take on The Wizard of Oz – and why it’s the perfect show to mark the theatre’s first Christmas in its newly redeveloped home.
Why have you chosen The Wizard of Oz for the Playhouse’s first Christmas after its £15.8 million redevelopment?
‘The Christmas show in the Quarry at the Playhouse is a big event that attracts tens of thousands of people. For many, it’s a special occasion that marks the festive season, so we’re always looking for a show that can unite an audience in celebration.
‘The Wizard of Oz is a story of people triumphing over challenging odds. It’s full of peril, jeopardy, excitement and hope, but it should also make people feel inspired, positive and joyful.
‘Theatrically, it gives us the opportunity to make the most of the amazing space that is the Quarry Theatre. It’s a chance for us to stage a fantastic, affirmative theatrical event. The notion of ‘there’s no place like home’ is particularly interesting because, this year, we’re back in the theatre after our redevelopment. It’s brilliant to welcome people back with a show of this scale – it feels appropriate as a celebration of the monumental year we’ve had.’
What, for you, are the key themes of The Wizard of Oz? And what new elements are you striving to bring out?
‘The story is so well known but now, having worked on it so closely, I have found lots in there I hadn’t recognised or maybe had just taken for granted before. It really repays a fresh look.
‘It’s about a child who’s let down by lots of people, particularly adults, and isn’t having an easy time. She has to battle really hard to discover who she is and, in the process, she enables other people to discover who they are and what their positive and affirmative qualities are.
‘The approach we’re taking is to make it feel as inclusive as possible so that it represents a contemporary view of the world rather than an old-fashioned view. It’s a cherished story still very much set in its original time, but ours is a modern telling that’s very accessible to audiences.’
You’ve chosen two young local actors to play Dorothy – 12-year-old Agatha Meehan and 14-year-old Lucy Sherman – and have also cast a young ensemble. Why was this important to you?
‘Having a child play Dorothy brings out the jeopardy of the story. As soon as a child steps into Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the whole energy of the piece changes. There’s more vulnerability and an increased sense of responsibility on behalf of the adults for the child, for someone so young and small. I’m also very conscious of having young people in the audience watching the story and identifying with the protagonist – that’s a very powerful thing.
‘Lucy and Agatha are working so hard. The show asks a lot of them, but they are really excellent. I’m so impressed with them; they’re both very skilled and talented and also have a wonderful open enthusiasm.’
Why is the character of Dorothy still so beloved by audiences?
‘Dorothy helps liberate people and communities by her actions, and her personality – she’s always completely without ego. She takes other people along with her, inspiring them to make a change in their own lives. The potential of a child to change the world is a really powerful idea. Adults can often be much more aware of risk, failure and disappointment. What I find interesting here is that you have a child who’s put into a position where she has to act beyond her years, and she achieves everything she sets out to do.’
What can people expect from Leeds Playhouse version of The Wizard of Oz?
‘All the classic elements will be there – the ruby slippers, the yellow brick road, the Wicked Witch – but there will be so much more besides. Aerialists, puppetry, real animals – our aim is to not only match people’s expectations but to surpass them. We’re also using projections to energise the aesthetic and bring a new dynamic element to the show.
‘For me, the yellow brick road is an interesting metaphor. It’s obviously a real thing in the story but it also represents a journey, growth and companionship. Also, for me, it represents faith; not in a religious way but in the possibility of achieving something that initially seems impossible. It shows how, if you set out with purpose in good company, you can achieve a goal that you never could have imagined achieving by yourself.’
What’s your personal relationship with The Wizard of Oz?
‘I don’t know whether it’s a generational thing, but when I was growing up there were films that seemed to be on the telly all the time, every year, andThe Wizard of Oz was one of them. The story has entered the national consciousness to a certain extent. There are certain lines in it that have become iconic, almost Shakespearean in their recognisability. Like “I’ll get you my pretty” and “I’m melting” – they’ve become part of popular vernacular.’
Has working intensely on The Wizard of Oz changed your view of the story?
‘Working so closely on it means I’ve got to know it really well. The Wizard of Oz is such a complex and interesting story that it has almost taken on mythological proportions, moving beyond its narrative and becoming a powerful emotional arc.
‘The technique of having a reality that is, in effect, in a dream world is something I’ve realised I’ve done quite a lot in my other work, in other shows, almost subconsciously referencing The Wizard of Oz as a source idea. The idea that there is a reality and then there’s an alternative reality based on that reality is a very rich, dramatic and incredibly neat structure to make a piece of work from.’
Who do you think Leeds Playhouse production of The Wizard of Oz will appeal to?
‘It’s tempting to say “all the family”, but it’s a story that reaches even further than that, to people who don’t have a family, to everyone in fact. It’s a great story that, as the Playhouse, we will deliver with an integrity, depth and warmth.’
What makes The Wizard of Oz in the Quarry special? What sets it apart?
‘For me, it’s not just about the songs and the spectacular elements, it’s about interrogating the story, and making it clear and gripping and exciting. I want to make it about something; about courage and friendship and the possibility of transformation and community.
‘We will, of course, deliver on the songs and the dancing and the spectacular elements, but with added dynamism and freshness. I want people to experience things they didn’t expect to see.
‘It’s a family show, but it’s also more than that. It’s a classic story, and we do classic stories very differently at the Playhouse. We respect the original, but present it in a way that feels fresh, modern and completely unexpected.’
The Wizard of Oz, Leeds Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre
20 November 2019 – 25 January 2020. Press Night Tue 26 November 2019, 7pm
Box office 0113 213 7700. Book online leedsplayhouse.org.uk
An interview with the director
THE WIZARD OF OZ
By L. Frank Baum
With Music and Lyrics by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg
Background Music by Herbert Stothart
Dance and Vocal Arrangements by Peter Howard
Orchestration by Larry Wilcox as revised by Toby Higgins
Adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company
Based upon the Classic Motion Picture owned by Turner Entertainment Co. and distributed in all media by Warner Bros.
Leeds Playhouse opened nearly 50 years ago. It is a cultural hub, a place where people gather to tell and share stories and to engage in world class theatre. The Playhouse makes work which is pioneering and relevant, seeking out the best companies and artists to create inspirational theatre in the heart of Yorkshire. From large scale spectacles to intimate performance, the Playhouse develops and makes work for the stage, found spaces, touring, schools and community venues. As dedicated collaborators, Leeds Playhouse works regularly with other organisations from across the UK, and some of the most distinctive and original voices in theatre today. Through their Artistic Development programme Furnace, they develop work with established practitioners and find, nurture and support new voices. They cultivate artists by providing creative space for writers, directors, companies and individual theatre-makers to refine their practice at any stage of their career. The Playhouse’s sector-leading Creative Engagement team works with over 10,000 people aged 0 – 95 every year through a range of weekly workshops and exciting creative projects using theatre to open up possibilities, reaching out to refugee communities, young people, students, older people and people with learning disabilities. At the Playhouse there is always a way to get involved.
Leeds Playhouse’s Autumn/Winter 2019 season will take place back in the redeveloped theatre following a £15.8 million transformation. The new building will include improved access to and around the theatre, a new city-facing entrance and the addition of a new studio theatre, the Bramall Rock Void. The full season consists of: FURNACE FESTIVAL 2019 returns showcasing a weekend of works in progress (13 – 16 November); Inua Ellams’ critically acclaimed BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES returns (20 – 23 November); celebrating 80 years since the iconic film THE WIZARD OF OZ (20 November – 25 January) is the Playhouse’s Christmas spectacular; Leeds Playhouse presents THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (30 November – 28 December); the The Egg and The Travelling Light present SNOW MOUSE (10 – 21 December), and the Playhouse proudly celebrates 10 years of Relaxed Performances this Christmas-time, pioneered at Leeds Playhouse and now adopted as standard practice in theatres worldwide.