You learn a lot more than lines from being in a play

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blankBy the time you read this, opening night for “The Wizard of Oz,” in which I play Auntie Em, has already come and gone. I know, I know — dirty pool. I didn’t mention it last week, but two things: one, I had opening night jitters as the big day approached, and two, I wanted to see how I do before inviting people to come witness my acting abilities or lack thereof.

Having survived opening weekend fairly well, if I do say so myself, there’s still time to see the play because it continues on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. for the next two weekends. All in all, I think it’s spectacular, but I am clearly biased.

As for the jitters, well, this whole “actress” thing is virgin ground for me, I mean, aside from acting interested when people drone on and on about things I don’t care about, or completely calm while tolerating someone who dearly needs to be punched in the neck. Aside from being in some silly musical fundraisers decades ago, this is only my second time on stage.

The first was “Calendar Girls,” in which I also played a frumpy, cranky, uptight middle-aged gal, and before you utter that loud “DUH,” let me state unequivocally that I am absolutely being cast against type! Were I to be cast more in alignment with my true temperament in “The Wizard of Oz,” I’d have to play both the role of Glinda the Good Witch of the North and Elphaba (yes, she has a name!) the Wicked Witch of the West. Why? I’m a Gemini. I can swing either way with ease. I already had a figurine of both adorning one of my curio shelves long before trying out for this play. My little witches are symbolic of one of my most cherished mantras: “51% sweetheart, 49% bitch — don’t push your luck.”

Aside from playing another frumpy, dumpy character, “The Wizard of Oz” is also directed by the award-winning Anita Ahuja, as was “Calendar Girls.” That was a major factor in deciding to participate in another community play, because they require an insane amount of time, of which I have precious little to spare. Rehearsals divert me from squandering my evenings (and sanity) wringing my hands over the evening news, and Anita’s firm but gentle nature is calming and supportive. Not only is she great at being in charge (and it’s such a joy not to be, for a change), rehearsals feel more like group therapy than practicing.

As for the others in this big, noisy, rambunctious therapy group, watching them all grow and improve since that first rehearsal when we sat around a table and read from scripts has been an inspiration, and none more so than the star of the show, Alexis Velasquez as Dorothy. Her talent, as well as her ability to memorize an entire show (she’s in every scene!), just floors me. You’d think a girl this talented would be a snotty brat, a teenage diva, but no. She is pure wide-eyed innocence and sweetness, but sincerely fiery and feisty too, and with the voice of an angel.

I’ve heard her sing “Over the Rainbow” about a thousand times now, and she melts my heart every time. There’s a sad reprise of this song when Dorothy is trapped in the witch’s castle, and she breaks my heart every time. As her Auntie Em, I’ve grown a bit attached to her. I think I’ll actually miss her after the show ends. I hope she remembers me when she’s famous.

Then there’s fun-loving Jim Hewlett, playing Scarecrow, injecting light-heartedness into everything, both on and off the stage. And, he loves cats. Boom. We are kindred spirits. Channeling the Cowardly Lion is Robert Williams, who has traveled miles as an actor in this short bit of time. His “woof and a WOOF and a royal grow-ell” delights me every time.

Rounding out the Fab Four of Oz is Loren Skinner as the Tin Man, and the scene where he finally gets his mouth oiled and speaks cracks me up every time. In the green room (that’s what we thespians call the room where we get ready and hide between scenes), we’ve all started going “a-HOO, a-HOO, a-HOO” at every opportunity, and I’ll let that remain a mystery that can only be solved by seeing the play.

There isn’t enough column space to give a shout-out to everyone who deserves it, but I must mention Ellie Yeatman, who plays Almira Gulch/The Wicked Witch with such gusto. Who knew such evil lurked in such a tiny package! Speaking of tiny packages… the kids. Wow, has it been amazing watching them master their roles, songs and dances.

Parents, take it from old Auntie Em: Theater is unparalleled for stretching children’s imaginations, memories, talent, and above all, self-confidence. Next time there’s an audition, encourage your kids to try out. Besides developing memorization skills, which will benefit them immensely at school, learning to be confident and fearless are invaluable life skills. Being able to stand their ground, puff out their chest and belt out their objections will serve them well the next time they’re confronted with the schoolyard bully, and will carry them much further in life than kicking a soccer ball around. Acting brave even when you aren’t feeling brave is the root of success.

Which brings us back to opening night jitters. Being on stage doesn’t bother me. Trusting my memorization skills, well, that’s another story. Turns out, I’m better at it than I believed, but I’ve also botched my lines plenty of times too. However, in doing so, I discovered another life lesson: the play goes on anyway. And, moreover, you must be willing to risk imperfection to enjoy the spotlight, or else you end up in the audience… and I don’t want to be in the audience of my own life.


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