Director Kevin Ryan stands inside the Performing Arts Center at the regional high school rehearsing for the Island Theatre Workshop’s latest production.
“Munchkins!” he calls to the group of children sitting in the front row of the theatre. The kids talk and giggle and tick-tock their feet.
“Does everyone have a hat tonight?” Mr. Ryan asks. “We’re going to start in a minute.”
There are kids with wave-shaped hats, flower bouquet hats and even some with flower petal headbands. One of the munchkins murmurs something about her hat being too big.
“If you can’t make it work you’re just going to have to get a bigger head,” Mr. Ryan replies. Laughter rolls throughout the dark theatre.
Mr. Ryan has acted, sang, danced, built sets, created costumes and staged lighting with the Island Theatre Workshop for 23 years. He credits his associate director on this production of The Wizard of Oz, Lee Fierro, 84, with mentoring him as he began exploring the director’s role six or seven years ago.
“It’s been a real gift that I’m a part of this,” Ms. Fierro said. “The Oz stories, all of them, have been my favorites since childhood. I am ever so grateful to Kevin. He is turning into a fine director. I really trust him as much as I used to trust Mary Payne. He’s looking for truth.”
Ms. Fierro sits on an overstuffed chair in the dressing room at the Performing Arts Center. She wears a turquoise cardigan and holds Toto’s white stuffed stand-in. All around her actors transform themselves into characters from The Wizard of Oz.
“I gave up the theatre once,” Ms. Fierro says. “It lasted until Jaws.” She smiles. “But that’s a different story.” Ms. Fierro played Mrs. Kintner in the film.
The Island Theatre Workshop has its roots in The Children’s Theatre founded by Mary Payne in 1968. Ms. Fierro’s role began soon after. The group needed a bookkeeper and she needed the money. “It started with $10 a week,” Ms. Fierro says.
In just one month Ms. Fierro was involved in much more than bookkeeping, but it took a year to get her on stage. In 1975 she performed in her first ITW production.
“The core of the Island Theatre Workshop mission is education,” says Stephanie Burke, president of the board of ITW and also a performer in The Wizard of Oz. “Our projects are process-driven, our performers and audiences are all ages, and we are an almost entirely volunteer organization.”
“We are absolutely a community theatre program in the best sense,” adds Mr. Ryan. “We offer opportunity to young and old, inexperienced and experienced. Performers learn about theatre, dance, performance and art, and also about acceptance, awareness, collaboration and teamwork. Performers are realtors, painters, school teachers, students and children.”
This performance has a special cast member. A little dog named Diamond is performing the role of Dorothy’s dog Toto. Mr. Ryan said she is a bright, smart and energetic puppy who makes it to almost every rehearsal.
Back in the theatre, Mr. Ryan steps out in front of the stage.
“Quiet in the house, please everybody! Quiet in munchkin land please.”
“Is the little dog coming?” asks one munchkin.
The scene begins in a sepia-toned Kansas with Dorothy carrying Toto across the stage.
“I am looking for truth in what children and adults do,” Ms. Fierro says about guiding actors. “I don’t want any fakeness. I want them to be heard, to look at each other and to really listen. Every time you get up on stage it’s as if it has never happened before and may never happen again.”
Ms. Fierro said that when playing an unsympathetic character she encourages actors to love that character. She uses the example of Felicity Russell, an experienced actress who is playing Almira Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West. “She is playing the witch as if she loves her to pieces,” Ms. Fierro says. “We have every possibility within us.”
Ms. Fierro has explored many possibilities in her own life. She worked in childbirth and hospice, raised her children and built a home on the Island with her own hands. “I even taught French to kindergarteners once,” she says. “The anniversary of the March on Washington is coming up,” she adds. “I was there. I stood at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. I was in the front row. That has been a true highlight of my life; it was my real discovery of the universality of humans.”
Back onstage Dorothy clutches Toto to her chest. Her dress has turned from brown to blue and her eyes are open wide.
“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” she says. The curtains part revealing a row of munchkins with their heads pressed against the floor. The Good Witch Glenda enters the stage to the trills of the piano. Her billowing pink skirt sways and sparkles as she raises her star-shaped wand. The munchkins dance and sing and twirl lollipops, while Dorothy hears about the Wizard and the yellow-brick road. Then the Wicked Witch clouds the technicolor fun.
“They become a company of actors,” Ms. Burke says, referring to the cast which includes six year olds and seventy-six year olds, professional actors and people who are on stage for the first time. Back in the dressing room she looks around at the actors — an actress braids Dorothy’s hair, the mayor of the munchkins lounges on the couch, Ms. Fierro discusses stockings with the Wicked Witch.
“They become a family.”
The Wizard of Oz will be performed at the Performing Arts Center at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Performances are August 24 to 27 and 29 to 31 at 7:30 p.m. A matinee performance on September 1 will begin at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $12 for children under 12. For more information visit itwmv.org.