Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Gari Jones: The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz

By | Published on Friday 11 December 2020

In recent months we’ve been taking rather a lot of notice of Oxford-based Creation Theatre, a company that’s really adapted to the constraints of lockdown by supporting and creating a number of clever and innovative productions delivered via Zoom.

Their upcoming Christmas show is an adaptation of a well-loved favourite, ‘The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz’, and will reach you via the aforementioned online means. I think it will be a brilliant holiday treat, especially for families with children over seven.

To find out more about what to expect from the show, and how the company has been adapting to the digital stage, I spoke to director Gari Jones.

CM: Can we start with the narrative of the show? Most readers will, I suspect, be fairly familiar with the storyline of ‘The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz’, but does your version make any changes to the plot or is it faithful to the original text?
GJ: Reinterpreting classic tales and putting them into a context whereby they are accessible, playful and poignant is a passion of mine! 

I have to get inside these stories, explore the setting, imagine conversations with the characters and ask myself what does the story mean to me and how do I feel about it now. 

Everyone knows this story, it’s huge and the characters are wonderful and magical, so I won’t be changing the narrative but there will be a poignancy and a lesson in there that I want to explore in my interpretation that’s really fun without coming across as being morally judgemental. 

CM: What would you say are the primary themes of the play? And what are its aims?
GJ: Being taken away from reality is at the heart of this play. There are several underlying themes which I hope will really resonate with the audience. Firstly, allowing yourself to be who you are and owning that. Right now it’s particularly poignant, especially when everyone is facing difficult times and acknowledging people’s sense of loss and sense of isolation is important. 

Secondly, it’s about people accepting themselves. It’s important for me to serve up a production that celebrates difference. In a way all of the characters – the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, Dorothy and Scarecrow – utilise each other to find their own strengths and sense of self.

There is a beauty to it, focusing on the fragility of a character who perceives themselves as having a flaw, but actually it makes them incredibly beautiful and unique. That’s something to be celebrated. Ultimately, this play is surreal, flamboyant and it’s about getting your diva on! 

CM: Obviously, this show is being delivered live via online means, which must make a difference to how the story plays out? How does this format affect the presentation of the show, compared to if it were happening in an actual theatre? 
GJ: We want to try and replicate the feeling of being at the theatre as much as possible and create something traditional for audiences to see as a collective to witness. Each performance has that sense of anticipation.

The actors can feel the ‘vibe’ of the audience and we want to hang onto that ‘liveness’ of the show in real-time. The uniqueness of every performance can often be the best bits! 

We will be incorporating some pre-filmed scenes – so getting to grips with special effects, whilst still keeping a sense of actors in their homes recreating this for each show.

CM: What challenges do you face in bringing together a performance this way? Is it more stressful, or less?
GJ: It’s a vibrant new form and the possibilities are endless! It’s been a challenge not to get too carried away with all the technical wizardry of Zoom.  

CM: How easy has it been to pull the show together during pandemic conditions?
GJ: Once our eight strong cast were all set up with all the technology they require to perform live via Zoom – using green screens to project fantastical backgrounds onto; costumes expertly designed by Ryan Dawson Laight; and high-speed wi-fi etc – we were quickly functioning as a ‘virtual’ team. 

It’s different as we are not all in a physical space rehearsing.  We turned everything around to do it all remotely. So costumes arrived at actors houses in a large box, even Tin Man’s ornate tin head. The choreography by Cydney Uffindel-Phillips has taken on a whole new life and the team of actors are responding to each other’s physical movements via the screen.

And we’ve had more one-to-one rehearsals over Zoom than for our previous Christmas shows which have traditionally been held at the North Wall Arts Centre in Oxford.

CM: Can you tell us about your personal approach to direction?
GJ: For me it’s about improvisation, working with the actors to really find the character and to get there organically.  We’ve had a lot of fun with quick-fire dialogue – finding the humour in the characters – and being flexible with the script. It’s OK to go ‘off piste’ 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast? 
GJ: It’s an absolutely amazing cast!  High-energy, massively experienced – the rehearsals over Zoom have been very lively! There is an exciting vibe and humour between the characters which you’ll love when you see the show!

CM: What aims do you have for the future?
GJ: To further embrace live digital theatre – it’s a vibrant and exciting new form enabling endless creative style. I am looking forward to writing new scripts specifically for the digital stage and to be ahead of the curve in terms of exploring the interactivity and engagement a digital performance has with its audience.

CM: How have you coped with life in lockdown? What’s kept you sane?
GJ: It’s been very surreal – I have family around me who’ve kept me sane!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
GJ: ‘Grimm Tales For Fragile & Broken People’, a play I’ve written over the last few months for the digital stage. Creation Theatre’s new rep company will be performing it to audiences live via Zoom in early 2021. Think dark, think silent film.  

‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ is on from 19 Dec-3 Jan, see the Creation Theatre website here for more information and to book.


Photo: Richard Budd