Linn-Benton Community College's theater program has built a reputation on original work, from student Dari Lawrie's "Follow Coyote" in 2015 to multiple Kennedy Center accolades for 2018's "I Got Guns!" to strong notices for last year's children's show, "Josephina Jordan, Underwater Explorer, and the Mystery of the Plastic Fish."
For the 45th annual children's show, however, audiences will be treated to familiar characters in a brand new tale, woven from a revived tradition: the origin story. After all, if they're good enough for superheroes, why not one of the 20th century's first beloved heroes, the Scarecrow, from L. Frank Baum's timeless 14-book "Oz" series?
And so "A Scarecrow in Oz: An Origin Story" was born.
Or, rather, reborn.
A team of LBCC Theater Department students, along with program director Dan Stone, began devising the production during last year's spring term. They met regularly to research the literary "Oz" canon for elements to incorporate into a new story while remaining faithful to Baum's established universe.
As it happens, 1900's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," the series' first book, does address the Scarecrow's past, noting his assemblage by Munchkin farmers to replace an older model in a cornfield. It wasn't much, but it provided enough inspirational spark upon which to build a plot.
"How do we create a story out of this with such little information?" Stone said. "Who are these farmers? Where do they live? Where is this farm?"
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"A Scarecrow in Oz" expands on "Wizard's" passages, assigning names to the character's creators, adding pinches from other "Oz" books and even separate fables — specifically Carlo Collodi's "The Adventures of Pinocchio" (1883) — to bring further dimension to this augmented re-imagining.
The Munchkin farmers become husband and wife, Cornelius (Joseph Johnson) and Mazey (Laural Tannehill), who dream of having a child of their own. So they visit Mombi (Rianda Linebarger), the Wicked Witch of the North, first introduced in 1904's "The Marvelous Land of Oz," where she used her Powder of Life to gift sentience to an inanimate creation called Jack Pumpkinhead.
In "Scarecrow," Mombi offers that powder to her visitors and tells them it can be made into a paint that brings whatever it touches to life. Like most witches, of course, she adds a caveat: It can be used only once.
When Cornelius and Mazey return home, they build a scarecrow and apply the crowning touch: the figure's eyes, painted into place with magic. With that, the scarecrow becomes their devoted son, Cornwall (Drew May). But, as often happens in such stories, trouble lurks in the offing — here in the form of a crow dispatched by Mombi to ensure that her warning about the magic paint goes unheeded. Those plans involve a pair of slippers, a pair of crows, and the eventual arrival of an iconic girl from Kansas (Shayanne Bolton) and her little dog too.
It wasn't just storybook magic that gave the scarecrow life; the minds behind the production whipped up some of their own. Retired Oregon State University costume designer Barbara Mason handled the wardrobe, modeling the Munchkins' wear on Dust Bowl-era Oklahomans and creating a flowing Mombi costume that allows the actress to both appear to fly across the stage and operate a puppet mask and hand sculpted by Stone. Student designer Natalya Bradley used butcher paper to fashion multiple rows of cornstalks. Korina Rayburn contributed original songs, which she performs between scenes. And the backdrops are ingeniously simple: differently shaped boxes in varying hues of cornflower blue, stacked and re-stacked like Legos to represent different settings.
Other cast members include Falyn Lazarus (Munchkin), Sarcon Majors (Munchkin/Old Crow/Toto) and Sophia Brow (Munchkin).
"I'm really proud of these students for doing this kind of work," Stone said. "It's our thing at LBCC to push the creation of original work, giving students these skills and experiences and opportunities.
"One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was years and years ago," he continued. "I was told 'Do your own thing. Don't wait around to be part of someone else's dream.'"