We’re off to meet the playwright, Patrick Shanahan
It all began innocently enough with an e-mail.
“Thank you for mentioning my play – OZ – being presented at the Hilberry Theatre through July 8th,” wrote Chicago-based playwright Patrick Shanahan. “I am very excited they chose my play to produce and appreciate the support in your online edition. If I can provide any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me.”
It was a surprise gesture, since I can count on one hand the number of playwrights who have written me thank-you notes over the past five years for simply listing their shows in our Theater Events column or running a press release in Curtain Calls ONLINE. (You DO log onto https://www.pridesource.com each week to check out the oodles of theater news and information we post there, don’t you?)
So I hit the reply button and accepted his offer to talk about the show.
Little did I know that within a very short time I would receive not only a flurry of very lengthy – and very funny – e-mails, but that we’d end up talking on the phone for nearly 90 minutes – about five times longer than my usual interviews. “It felt more like talking to an old friend about old times than an interview,” he later wrote me.
And that’s true, because from the moment I first read his wickedly funny autobiography I knew we were kindred spirits. Both Irish Catholics (although I’m more Italian than Irish, much to the chagrin of my sainted mother), both of us attended highly regarded art schools following high school – where it didn’t take long to discover we were out of our element – and we each served time working as directory assistance operators for our local phone companies before heading back to college to study theater. We’re both single, gay and old enough to be counted in the 1960 census, but only one of us studied Kabuki in Japan, worked as Tim Curry’s dresser in the Chicago preview and premiere of “Spamalot” and was a successful teen model whose career ended in his twenties when he started losing his hair. (Can you guess which one of us that was?)
And only one of us is about to become an international playwright when his work lights up the London stage this summer for the very first time.
Hangin’ with the munchkins
“What can you do with it,” Jeff Church, an old college friend and director of the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, asked Shanahan upon commissioning him to write a new version of “The Wizard of Oz” for his well-respected children’s theater. “I can’t do the all-singing, all-dancing ‘Oz’ – it doesn’t really fit with our mission.”
Church wanted to do a scaled-down version, Shanahan recalled, but he didn’t know what that was. Neither did the playwright. “It was like, can I do anything with that? Can I find any meat in that story? Is there even anything left to pick away at?”
Yes there was, as Shanahan discovered. However, there was one ironclad rule he was given that couldn’t be violated: His play must be based on material that’s in the public domain. Therefore, concepts that originated in the popular 1939 movie couldn’t be touched.
What appealed to the playwright was the iconic nature of the story and its characters. “[L. Frank] Baum came up with this simple philosophy for kids that really tapped into something,” he said.
Shanahan tapped into something, too, with his version of “Oz” – a child’s imagination. “I think ‘Oz’ became a dream project for me, in that it was literary based, an icon that people could latch onto – and I had some really fun theater problems to solve.”
Such as, how do you get three people to play every single part the story requires?
Yes, that’s correct. In Shanahan’s “Oz” – set in Baum’s Victorian Study – there’s only the author, his housekeeper and his impish neighbor, Dot. So how do you create the Tin Man on stage in a Victorian study, you might be asking yourself?
“In this script we see L. Frank Baum acting out his story with the help of a neighbor girl and his maid,” answered the Hilberry’s Anthony Rhine, who’s directing the script for the second time. “From their imaginations (and consequently, from ours) come, notably, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion, as well as dozens of other characters, a sky full of flying monkeys, a gigantic wizard and a melting witch, to name just a few.”
So in Rhine’s production, a stuffed pillow becomes Toto, a coat tree turns into the Scarecrow and a pot-bellied stove is transformed into the Tin Man. And Dot plays – as you’d expect – Dorothy.
Although it is “wonderfully” suited for children of all ages – “even the three and four-year-olds are engaged throughout,” Rhine says – it is also great for adults. “It doesn’t talk down to kids or adults. It doesn’t pretend to be more than a wonderful entertainment. I STILL love to watch it!”
Since its premiere in 1994 – which was reviewed by Variety, the show business bible – “Oz” has been staged numerous times throughout the country. One of the playwright’s favorites occurred at the Oz Centennial in Bloomington, Indiana where he watched it with several of Baum’s relatives and five of the surviving little people from the 1939 movie. And on August 4, the yellow brick road will lead to the Unicorn Theatre in London where “Oz” will make its European debut – an event the author has long anticipated. “The script really has taken on a life of its own,” he said.