by Nathan Bergstedt
We watched the Minnesota Fringe Festival lottery with bated breath, waiting to see if our names were called as one of the select few companies picked to perform an original show for the 2014 festival. As it turned out, we missed the mark. Of the hundreds of companies picked to perform or to wait in the wings as back up, we had yet to hear “the Uncommon Loons” be called by the lottery officiants.
This, despite our disappointment, was probably for the best. Just like that, we were absolved from the responsibility of another full-length show to perform over the summer. We were already planning on Much Ado About Nothing (which wouldn’t have worked for the Fringe Fest because of how long it was), and we were also recently commissioned by the Wizard of Oz Festival committee in Grand Rapids to perform an original mystery dinner theater for the 75thanniversary of the film.
Grand Rapids is the birthplace of Judy Garland, the famous Hollywood siren who starred in the iconic technicolor film. Every year in June, there’s a Judy Garland Festival in town, but in honor of the 75th anniversary of “Oz,” the festival name was changed. They were doing things big this year, including an attempt at breaking the world record for most people dressed up like “Wizard of Oz” characters in one place, so they hoped to have some live theatrical entertainment for their annual Oz Dinner as well.
Between work on “Silhouette, Gentile Silhouette,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” and “Two By Two,” we found ourselves not even thinking about the Oz Mystery for the better part of the spring. All the same, I attended semi-regular meetings with festival committee members to let them know the “progress” that we were making. Truly, we should’ve spent a lot of time working on this show; it was our very first commission! We were actually getting paid to do this show… not a lot, but still. We were getting paid, and we didn’t have to advertise or promote the show at all. That was all on the festival organizers, so we only needed to worry about putting on the best show possible, which is about as optimum of circumstances as we could ask for. We even had carte blanche on what the show was going to be about! All that was requested was that it be a mystery involving “Wizard of Oz” characters. Beyond that and the understanding that it should be generally family friendly, we could do pretty much anything we wanted.
As it was, I was having a hell of a time even getting work done on the “Much Ado” script. Spending most of my time over the winter just trying to deal with my seasonal depression (and it was a shitty winter too, with basically constant sub-zero temperatures and blizzards), motivation to do anything that resembled constructive was an up-hill battle. But I wanted to write the script. John, Steph, and I had a hilarious brainstorm session wherein we figured that we’d do a neo-noir style play about the theft of the Ruby Slippers that made the Wizard into a private eye, Dorthy the damsel in distress, the Scarecrow an attorney, the Tin Man a mechanic with a soft spot for fashion, and the Lion a washed up boxer who worked as muscle for the mob. And of all that, the best part was the ending, the reveal of whodunit, which I will not divulge here lest we actually perform the show again (which is a possibility).
At a certain point, with less than two months left before showtime, I decided that the task of writing this show should probably be left to John, if he was willing. I simply wasn’t getting anywhere with this show, let alone the “Much Ado” adaptation, which was going to take even more time. And with luck, John actually asked me first if he could write the show; a request I was happy to hear.
Usually a stickler for research, John took advantage of the fact that he didn’t actually have to do any research for this show, and instead just focused on writing a comedy that was littered with one-liners and cheesy inside jokes regarding the “Wizard of Oz” and general pop culture. After assembling our pre-arranged cast, we basically laughed our way through our short rehearsal process. We brought back Josh Cagle and Katie Benes to play the Wizard and Dorthy, Rachel Randle to play the Scarecrow, Tony Schmid to play the Tin Man, and I played the Lion.
Provided we didn’t completely botch the performance itself, we figured we couldn’t lose with this one. First off, we thought it was funny. Besides that, it was chocked full of Oz-related jokes, and we were to perform it before an audience of crazed “Wizard of Oz” fans. And the audience was also being fed dinner and had access to a full bar. An act of God was practically needed for this to get screwed up.
And sure enough, God neglected to show up to throw a monkey wrench in our gears. The show went great. One of the things that stick out in my mind about the performance was a dropped line that was my cue for a funny one-liner, which I then wasn’t able to deliver. That’s just the nature of things though; you don’t remember all the things that went as planned, just the one thing that didn’t. But no one noticed anyway. They were too busy having a good time, celebrating an auspicious anniversary of their favorite movie starring their favorite actor, and they thought the play (and especially the ending) was hilarious.
Now we just needed to finish work on “Much Ado About Nothing.”