After a performance of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that my family attended, my daughter walked into the lobby where the actors were waiting to greet the audience. She walked up to one of them and embraced her.
Sure, in my book, that is about the best review the show could get. The actual press has been equally effusive. “…Adventure Theatre MTC shares the story with magic and wonder,” writes Debbie Jackson on DCTS.com, pronouncing the production “highly recommended.” The show has been extended through May 31st.
I had a chance to interview playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton via email, and to talk about adapting the story to the stage, and other things as well:
Is this the first play that you’ve written that was adapted from existing material, or have you done that before?
Lawton: Oh, I love adaptation and have done several of my favorite classic plays, novels, and operas. For instance, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (Blood-Bound and Tongue-Tied is set in Texas in the 1940s and Jocasta is cast as a light-skinned black woman passing for white), Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (The Devil’s Sweet Water explores love and Islamophobia in a post-9/11 world), Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Ann K is set in Paris during the 1920s and Anna is cast as a black American singer and Levin as a black soldier and painter), and Giuseppe Verdi‘s Un Ballo In Maschera (Love Brothers Serenade is set in D.C. and explores the negative impact of gentrification on poor black communities). For me, adaptation is about bringing these powerful, timeless stories to a contemporary setting and positioning men and women of color at the center of these stories. Too much of our history and the American Theatre has excluded people of color, except for the most limited or stereotypical roles, so this is my way of normalizing diversity and shedding light on our history, struggles, successes, and legacy.
How did you become involved in the project? Was it something that you initiated, or did Adventure Theatre MTC come to you with the idea of adapting the Oz story?
Lawton: I’m a longtime fan of Adventure Theatre MTC and had the pleasure of dramaturging the world premiere production of Artistic Director Michael J. Bobbitt’s adaptation of Mirandy and Brother Wind. For the past few years, Michael and I have been trying to find the right commission for me. We considered a few titles before landing on The Wizard of Oz, which is a story that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s an epic, much beloved adventure story.
Tell us your earliest memories of Oz. Was it the books, the film, The Wiz, Wicked, or any other versions?
Lawton: I credit my mother’s love of MGM musicals for becoming involved in theatre. She introduced me to Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and all of those amazing actors and actresses. When I first saw The Wizard of Oz, I was amazed. I saw myself in Dorothy and wondered how they knew what was in my heart. How did they know that I was so loved, but so terribly lonely and that I longed for adventure? I watched it every time it came on television and never got tired of it. Now, when I saw The Wiz, I was terrified of it. The subway scenes and the costumes — it all gave me nightmares and made me so sad. I never watched it again, but I do love the song “Everyone Rejoice” and I loved all the high kicking! I plan to watch it in December when NBC presents it for television, so we’ll see. I’ve never seen Wicked or any other versions, so, I only know the book and the movie.
Is there something timelessly relevant about this story, or is it just a fun fable with which we all are familiar and fond?
Lawton: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz remains so timely and relevant because it is a big adventure story about being loved, loving your family, and appreciating what you have, even if it’s not as much as what someone else has. Of course, it’s also about learning how to be a good friend. What I added to the story is that Dorothy learns that she has a role in her family and she can contribute even in a small way to the running of the farm. She learns how to be a good young person; and that doesn’t just mean doing what you’re told, it means doing what you believe in as well. Dorothy also learns how to believe in herself and to support others. These are big, valuable lessons here and it’s so much fun!
What was the most challenging aspect of the adaptation: condensing it to the length? Keeping cast size reasonable? Avoiding or embracing the most indelible aspects of other versions?
Lawton: Oh, the easiest part was condensing the play down to fifty minutes. I first turned every chapter into a scene, and you learn pretty quickly that the novel does not lend itself to a dramatic narrative. There’s no conflict and suspense to drive the play forward. Everything is so easy for them. So, once I decided which characters and scenes were essential to build the story, the condensing came quite naturally. Then I had to add scenes and create obstacles for Dorothy and her friends to build the drama. The most challenging part was letting go of the Queen of the Field Mice. I loved her so much and had a whole subplot going for her and the Tin Woodman, but we didn’t need her and so I said a sad good-bye.
Casting one actor as both good and bad witches – was that a writer or a director choice?
Lawton: I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but it was a decision that everyone, Roberta Gasbarre, Michael Bobbitt, Otis Ramsey-Zoe, and I, got excited about and agreed made the most sense. By the way, there’s dual double casting of women figures in Dorothy’s life: Aunt Em is played by the same actress who plays Locasta, the Good Witch of the North. I like that Dorothy is able to see multiple examples of what it means to be a woman. I wanted to explore the world of “yes” and “no” for children. When we’re young, we don’t always understand why we’re told that we can’t do something. We don’t always know that it’s for our safety, or that our parents don’t have enough money, or that there isn’t enough time, or because we’re not old enough. So, the “no” feels cruel and unfair. Aunt Em tells Dorothy “no” a lot and has all of kinds of rules on the farm. The Wicked Witch of the West is just so delightfully wicked, whereas Locasta, the Good Witch of the North, and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, are both kind and helpful in their own ways.
It seemed to me, watching the show, that you avoided including some of the really familiar lines from the movie (for the most part). Was that a deliberate choice?
Lawton: From the beginning, we wanted to be faithful to the book. For copyright reasons, I wanted to stay away from anything that the MGM film had created. Interestingly, the last line of the book and the movie is “There’s no place like home,” but it didn’t feel right for the play. I needed something more active and purposeful. Early in the play, Dorothy decides to run away from home because it’s lonely, no fun, and there are so many chores. Over the course of her journey, she learns valuable lessons about how to help people and she grows to appreciate all that she has. She could stay in Oz, but makes the decision to return home. So when she says, “I’m so happy to be home,” it’s after wanting to be away and learning that home is where she belongs because she’s loved and she can contribute to life on the farm.
Was the script pretty much set before rehearsals began, or were there adjustments or revisions once rehearsals commenced? Were you on-site much or at all during the rehearsal process?
Lawton: The script was pretty much set before rehearsal began. I wrote the first draft over the summer and then completed the second and third drafts ahead of a three-day intensive workshop. During that workshop, we had time to explore the script and the needs of the production. I did two more rewrites after that and, by the time we got to rehearsal, we were able to fine tune the script as a luxury. I was on-site for the first few days of rehearsal and then I received notes for edits or questions through the rehearsal reports. The super fun part was that I was able to watch the design run and the first dress rehearsal over Skype. Then I came back for opening weekend and I’m going to see it again when I’m in town this week.
Is there anything you’d like to say about working at Adventure Theatre MTC?
Lawton: Oh, I had such a wonderful experience working with everyone on this production. This adaptation might have been overwhelming on my own, but I knew that working with Michael, Roberta, and Otis that I was in such good hands! Roberta and Michael are experts at the magic, wonder, and suspense of theatre. They both have such respect for children, which was important to me. Otis is an absolutely brilliant dramaturg. This is our fifth or sixth time working together. Also, I was so lucky to get my dream cast. I love them all! I’ve written four plays for Paige Hernandez, and could write forty more. She’s one of my muses. (Clay Steakley, who lives in L.A. now, is the other one.) So it was a delight to be able to work together on a play in production. And I had such a talented and imaginative design and production team. I was impressed by everything they created. I would do this process all over again from start to finish in a heartbeat. I admire Michael Bobbitt and the work that Adventure Theatre MTC does. The writing, acting, and production values are of such a high quality. They create such a warm, friendly, and welcoming space. I also love the way they stay in touch with patrons and share information about the production. They make the experience of going to the theatre fun for everyone, at every age, which is so important when working to cultivate a lifetime love of the theatre.
I believe there is a great appetite across the country for quality writing for young audiences. Has there been any interest, now that it has opened, in mounting other productions? Do you hope for/expect the piece to have a life beyond Glen Echo?
Lawton: Yes, there’s been so much interest in the script. But, to be honest, I was contacted about the script before the play even opened, and I’m receiving loads more interest now. It’s great! The attraction of the script is the popular title; the storytelling that remains faithful to the book; the richness of the characters; the seven-person cast; and that it’s only fifty minutes in length. We’ve extended the show by a full week and I certainly hope it has a long life after Adventure Theatre MTC.
I’ve heard that you got a job out of town. Could you tell me about that? Have you fully relocated, or are you splitting your time between here and there? Do you intend to/hope to stay involved in the D.C. scene, even if you aren’t here full time?
Lawton: Yes, I was offered a tenure-track assistant professor position at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the Department of Dramatic Art. I also serve as one of the dramaturgs for PlayMakers Repertory Company. So, while Chapel Hill is home, I’ve been back to D.C. once a month since January and I’m heading back this week to see Theatre Lab’s Dramathon and to attend the Kennedy Center/Aspen Institute Arts Summit: The Road Forward. Of course, it is my sincere hope to remain an active part of the D.C. theatre community, while being on faculty and serving PlayMakers Rep and getting to know the artists in the N.C. Triangle. Fortunately, I have two major projects coming up that will bring me back to the nation’s capital quite often. For one of them, I’ll be able to commission D.C. playwrights and hire some of my favorite designers and directors, so that’s great.
Could you talk about your involvement in the Theatre Lab Dramathon?
Lawton: Oh, I’m so honored to be a part of this event! I’m in the company of such great playwrights and get to work with some of D.C.’s most talented actors. It was a joy to write this play for Gabriella Fernandez-Coffey. Talk about a muse! Also, I love that the mission of the Dramathon, which is to raise money for students to attend summer camp. I’ve been quite poor for the majority of my life, which has put me at such a disadvantage for everything. Being poor should not prevent you from learning or pursuing your dreams, but it can and often does. I get emotional talking about this because I know how fortunate I’ve been. Teachers and mentors saw potential in me and created pathways of opportunities for me to be involved and to learn. I always appreciate times when I can do the same for others.
What other projects you are working on now?
THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ
EXTENDED! April 3 – May 31
Adventure Theatre MTC
7300 MacArthur Blvd
Glen Echo, MD
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Lawton: I’m working on rewrites of The Hampton Years, which received its world premiere at Theater J as part of the Locally Grown Festival. Over the past year, I’ve worked to strengthen and hone that script. It will receive its second production this Fall at Virginia Stage Company. Also, I’m a member of Center Stage’s inaugural Playwright’s Collective and I’m working on a new play, Among These Wild Things, which explores the intersection of art, race, religion, and science. I would say that my dream projects would be to find theatre homes for all of my plays, especially Love Brothers Serenade and Noms de Guerre. They’ve received a lot of attention, but haven’t landed productions yet.
Anything else we haven’t touch on?
Lawton: Yes, I’m excited about the upcoming Women’s Voices festival and proud of the D.C. theatre community for coming together in this way. Knowing that each year only 17-18% of plays produced across the country are written by women, it’s exhilarating to know that so many plays by women will be seen at one time. Of course, I wish that a play of mine had been selected to be produced; but more than that, I wish more women of color were being represented in the festival. In our efforts to combat sexism in the American Theatre, we have to be mindful to include women playwrights of color and also women playwrights with disabilities. Otherwise, we continue to emulate a system of exclusion that preferences the white voices. Still, it is my sincere hope that theatre leaders across the city and nation are inspired by the work being presented and continue to create more opportunities for women playwrights in their seasons.