16-yeard-old Ivy Creel plays Dorothy in the Renaissance High School production of Wizard of Oz. Photos by Ericson Calderon.
Winkies and talking apple trees are roaming the halls of Renaissance High School. Flying monkeys and representatives from the Lollipop Guild congregate outside the auditorium, their chatter denouncing any kind of division between good and evil. And, at least one mettle-challenged lion is on the prowl, sneaking up on unsuspecting bystanders, hoping to strike fear into their hearts.
Strange things are afoot at this small performing arts school, that’s for sure.
It’s production week, and the campus is throbbing with energy as the countdown to curtain-rise on the school’s production of the musical, Wizard of Oz, nears its end.
And, while Long Beach Poly prepares for a Friday night C.I.F. Southern Section showdown with Mission Viejo on the gridiron, the kids of Renaissance will shine on a different stage. Their completely student-run performance of the timeless L. Frank Baum classic opens at the Terrace Theatre Downtown at 7PM.
“We don’t have any football teams here so our productions are kind of like our football team or our basketball team," said Susan Thrasher, the play’s director and a theatre teacher at Renaissance. “It’s what we do here. It really brings our small community together.”
The Terrace Theater seats over 3,000 people and provides a stage area that some cast members jokingly suggested could house several of their school’s auditoriums. The setting is a huge departure from the 825-person capacity Center Theater where Renaissance has traditionally performed its plays and musicals. Freshmen Jeremy Michaels, the Munchkin Mayor, admits that it may seem daunting but he’s ready for the challenge.
"It’s really cool getting to perform at the Terrace Theatre for my first play ever," Michaels said. "I did come to this school for acting and performing in front of a lot of people."
The long road to opening night began about ten weeks ago when auditions were held just three days after the semester started. Nearly 150 students tried out and were whittled down to a cast of 65 singing, dancing, flying citizens of Oz. Altogether, roughly 140 students will contribute to the production, from belting out the score from the orchestra pit to controlling the lighting and set design.
Zachary Ates, 17, and Ezekiel Bennett, 16, or "Z&Z Productions" as they prefer to be called, designed the massive Emerald City gate that will be used in the play. Though not typically behind the scenes, the two liked being recruited for set design duties and it has changed their perspective as actors.
“When I act on stage, I don’t really pay attention to the set,” Ates said. “It’s just a big piece of wood with something drawn on it. Now that I see how much work and effort goes into building something and painting something I really, really appreciate it.”
First time set building, though, pales in comparison to the path that Dorothy, the Wizard and other cast members will be asked to blaze. For the first time in school production history, actors will be utilizing a fly-rail system, making for a more authentic Kansas-tornado experience. Though the facilities at Renaissance haven’t allowed for practice flights, the fate of the monkeys and Wicked Witch shouldn’t be in question because a fly-technician that’s worked on over 90 Wizard of Oz performances will be supervising. Dorothy, played by 16-yeard-old Ivy Creel, is unfazed by the thought of soaring through the air.
“I’m excited because a lot of people don’t get this opportunity this young,” Creel said. “I had a dance teacher that told me she didn’t get to fly until she was 30. So I feel kind of honored.”
Creel, who along with the Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man make up the “Fab-4”, says the need to portray genuine friendship on stage has created a close-knit family because of countless hours spent practicing lines together. The family ties are more literal between Creel and Toto, who’s played by her recently adopted Maltese-mix, Chiqui. The logistics of using a live animal have been navigated by hiding treats in Dorothy’s basket, but for the more technical scenes, Toto will give a way to a stunt double—a stuffed animal.
“For the most part, she’s a really good dog and she kind of just stays,” said Maria Dowell, the vocal music director, as she cradled Chiqui in her arms. “But our main concern is she might wander off stage when she’s not on the leash.”
Renaissance is becoming more and more of an anomaly as budget cuts have forced schools to abandon the arts. But, through the help of fundraisers and highly involved parents who help transport kids and even feed students at rehearsals, the school has continued to flourish since being established in 2004. The fact that students attend Renaissance strictly to take part in performing arts is something that Thrasher appreciates immensely.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t recognize how lucky I am to work at Renaissance,” Thrasher said. “Being in a group of people who want to do this versus people who have to do it makes any job more exceptional.” Expectations vary from actor to actor and anticipation for Friday is growing, but the Wizard, played by 16-year-old William Ardelean, speaks for the entire cast with what he hopes the audience takes away from the finished product.
“I really want them to walk away and feel like they haven’t gone to a high school performance,“ Ardelean said. “I want them to see it and feel that it was a well rounded, enjoyable performance. I want them to come back and go, ‘Wow, that was good. I’d see it again.’”
Renaissance High School's performance of Wizard of Oz will be at the Terrace Theatre, Friday November 16 at 7PM. Tickets are $25 for adults, $15 for students and $8 for children and can be purchased online through Ticketmaster.