by Kaleb Van Rijswijck
A Theater for Young Audiences (or TYA) contract is a hoot and a half. It is such a joy to witness small minds being exposed to the theatrical arts for the first time. I love watching them make connections in real-time. It is not something you get to experience as an actor all the time. However, a TYA project can be taxing in many ways. You are essentially producing a full-scale musical with all of the elements to be performed in 75 minutes. It is straight cardio twice a day for 80 minutes.
For The Wizard of Oz at Chicago Shakespeare Theater specifically, I have about 11 costume quick changes, which doesn't seem like a lot, but when the show is a short one-act and you're also singing backstage it all adds up. We have a dresser backstage that helps us get in and out of our clothes as quickly and safely as possible. I think my fastest quick change is around 60 seconds, maybe less now that we have perfected it. If you do the math and include me changing from my street clothes into my costumes before and after every show, I change my clothes about 30 times a day on our two show days.
Performing nine shows a week is really tough on your body and injury or illness is inevitable. This last week we lost one of our lovely ensemble members due to an injury that would not heal properly if he kept dancing on it, so our external swing is filling in permanently for the rest of the run. For this show, we only have one external male-identifying swing that covers all three ensemble men. This morning, the cast received a notice that another male ensemble member would be out today due to a recurring injury that he has had. If you caught on, that means we have too many people out. Our dance captain came in with a contingency plan and we put together a modified “cut track" show. The show was going swimmingly until a costume malfunction caused us to lose our external swing right before the MunchkinLand sequence.
What happened next seemed like a fever dream but also some of the best ensemble "yes, and?" work I have ever witnessed.
I should start by saying that MunchkinLand is probably one of the most energetic moments of the show because it is the audience's introduction to the land of Oz. The director (Brian Hill) and choreographer (Kenny Ingram) pulled out all the stops with this one. Giant dance breaks, big prop handoffs, large scenic moves, and an entire Kazoo chorus. All and all, a giant production number.
We stepped out onto that stage knowing very well that we were already down a couple of bodies and now our contingency plan was no longer valid. We had no idea what would happen next. We smiled, re-spaced the dances as best we could, passed props around, changed blocking and picked up the slack wherever it was needed. It was like the most dramatic game of hot potato, you could ever experience. The pinnacle of the experience topped out when I realized I was now the lone standing Lollipop Guild member. I am normally joined by two other members, however, due to the circumstances, it was just me. I grabbed my lollipop and made eye contact with another ensemble member who mouthed, "Say 'I'."
I nodded my head and I proceeded to sing more confident than ever, "I represent the Lollipop Guild..." instead of "We."
The rest of the show flew by with other little blips here and there and we came out, in the end, a stronger ensemble than ever.
I crawled into my bed that evening still reeling from the day's events, and Dorothy's infamous line, "There's no place like home," truly rang loud and clear.