Ziegfeld Theater Company’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a hands-on experience | ParkRecord.com

Ziegfeld Theater Company’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a hands-on experience

Actors perform with American Sign Language

 Ziegfeld Theater Company’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’

  • When: Sept. 9-11; Sept. 15-18
  • Where: The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St.
  • Cost: $23-$43
  • Phone: 855-745-SHOW
  • Web: parkcityshows.com
Ziegfeld Theater Company’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” which starts a two-weekend run starting Friday at the Egyptian Theatre, will be performed in English and American Sign Language.
Courtesy of Ziegfeld Theater Company

Those who attend the two-weekend run of the Ziegfeld Theater Company’s production of “The Wizard of Oz” that starts at the Egyptian Theatre this Friday should be aware of the production language — American Sign Language.

The production, which runs Sept 9-11 and Sept. 15-18, will feature actors performing the songs from the classic 1939 film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” with their voices and hands, said Ziegfeld Theater Executive Director Caleb Parry, who is also the director of the musical.

“The whole point of the production is to allow the deaf community to come see the production in a way they haven’t seen a production before,” he said. “Deaf or hard-of-hearing people have never been able to just watch the show. They either have to read subtitles or watch an interpreter. So we decided to do it in a way where they can watch the show like everyone else.”

Peyton Lozano, who plays Dorothy in the Ziegfeld Theater Company’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” is one of the actors who had to learn American Sign Language for the show.
Courtesy of the Ziegfeld Theater Company

To accomplish this goal, the production features three deaf actors in the show, including A. Bret Cummens, a professor of ASL at Weber State University, all of the hearing actors, including Peyton Lozano, who plays Dorothy, needed to learn ASL, Parry said.

You go backstage and you see people who did not know sign three months ago conversing with the deaf folks…” Caleb Parry, Ziegfeld Theater Company artistic director

“Bret does the translation of the script and makes videos for everybody, and people were in private coaching sessions, especially Peyton,” he said. “I mean, she had so much to learn, because she never leaves the stage.”

The other two deaf actors in the production are Janelle Nielson (Glinda) and Britton Auman (Scarecrow).

“They, along with Bret, who plays the Wizard, perform with sign language, but also have what we call voice actors, who follow them around like shadows to provide the hearing audience with the vocals,” Parry said. “We worked with them to figure things out, and it’s been so fun to watch them work together to embody one character.” 

The voice actors are Hannah Wetzker as Glinda, Sam Young as Scarecrow and Tim Behunin as the Wizard, according to Parry.

Hannah Wetzker, left, is the voice actor for Janelle Nielson, right, who is deaf, in the Ziegfeld Theater Company’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” While Nielson performs the role with American Sign Language for the deaf members of audience, Wetzker sings and speaks for the audience members who can hear.
Courtesy of the Ziegfeld Theater Company

He said one of the big challenges was how to do the Wizard with the giant talking head. “We thought about throwing a guard on stage so he can interpret everything or resorting to subtitles,” Parry said. “But I really wanted the actors to express their lines and dialogue in ASL the way they want to express them.”

He came up with the idea to divide the Wizard role in two and named them Odekirk and Zauberer — so their initials are O and Z — and that helped facilitate the giant talking head.

“I made this big head, and Bret stands behind it so it looks like it’s his head,” Parry said. “Then we project the face of Tim onto the head, while Bret does all the sign language.”

The challenge of doing this is figuring out how to give Cummens cues to his lines.

“Bret doesn’t know when Tim is talking, and he can’t see the actors for the cues,” Parry said. “So we have Tim standing in the wings off stage, so the audience can’t see him. Bret, because he is concealed by the big head, looks towards the wings and sees Tim, who cues him with the lines.”

The system is a little easier with the Scarecrows and Glinda, Parry said.

“Britton has a great sense of rhythm and there are times when Sam will kind of guide him to find the key points in the music where they kind of check in with each other,” he said. “And Janelle has actually been a dancer for over 20 years. She has cochlear implants so she can hear certain things, and since she is just musically inclined already, I’ll watch her and Hannah check in every now and again, and see what’s going on.”

And while the actors relied on each other for cues, they also had to make sure they were in the audience’s sight lines, Parry said.

“We also learned the placement of actors is important, because deaf folks, when they chat, they chat face to face, because they have to see the body in order to properly communicate,” he said.

A. Bret Cummens, a professor of American Sign Language at Weber State University, right, and Tim Behunin, portray Odekirk and Zauberer, the wizards, in the Ziegfeld Theater Company’s “The Wizard of Oz” that opens Friday for a two-weekend run at the Egyptian Theatre.
Courtesy of the Ziegfeld Theater Company

The idea for the Ziegfeld Theater to produce a production with ASL came in 2019 when the company was pulling ideas together for its 2020 season.

“We thought we really should try to do an inclusive performance and do it in ASL, and we thought that would be fun,” Parry said. 

The idea took off when Parry was preparing to direct “Newsies.” 

“I kept mulling over the show and wanted to find a way I could present the show in a way we haven’t seen hundreds of times,” he said. “That’s when I thought maybe it would be the ASL show. And after we looked at the text, the whole show came together, because it’s about people not being heard, and we thought it would be wonderful to tell it this way.”

Ziegfeld’s production of “Newsies” struck a nationwide chord, insomuch that the musical’s composer Alan Menkin tweeted at the company, and Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, wrote Parry a personal email thanking him for presenting the musical with ASL, Parry said.

“Then the Deaf community responded, and told us how happy they were to see representation on stage,” he said. “We started getting calls from schools, and we were getting ready to bring the show to Park City, and then the pandemic hit.”

While COVID-19 prevented Ziegfeld Theater Company from presenting the show in Park City, it streamed it into classrooms across the country, Parry said.

“While we felt there was a need for inclusion and representation, the whole experience really opened our eyes to how important those things are,” he said. “We hear about how important representation is, but when you see it first hand, it hits you. Kids who never thought in a million years that they could do theater are suddenly telling their parents they can do it. So we decided to make ASL part of every season.”

Parry and company learned a lot while putting together “Newsies” that they were able to tighten up with “The Wizard of Oz.”

“We learned so much about deaf culture, and we also learned that we needed to get them involved early on in the process,” he said. “One of the beautiful things about this is that so much of our cast have not only learned their lines in sign language, but they know enough to communicate regularly with their fellow deaf actors. So you go backstage and you see people who did not know sign three months ago conversing with the deaf folks.”

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