Following The Yellow Brick Road

How Fond du Lac High School Put On A Musical In The Era Of COVID


When theater manager Steve Wilson and music teacher Cory Schneider decided during the early spring 2020 that “The Wizard of Oz” would be their next play, the plan was to put it on in November of the same year. Unfortunately, life (and a pandemic) intervened. Dorothy and the yellow brick road didn’t end up making an appearance on the Fond du Lac High School stage until November 2021, and it was under drastically different circumstances than the teachers had originally imagined.

For one, they had anticipated putting on the well-known musical with a cast that was used to the schedule and intensity of the rehearsals, but the year-and-change disruption had knocked even seasoned veterans of school productions out of the routine, to say nothing of the less experienced members.

“I think it threw a lot of people because we had freshmen coming in who had never been involved in a show at the high school and they’re like ‘Oh, my God, all of this work.’ It’s like, well, what did you expect? That stuff doesn’t just, like, pop into existence,” Wilson said. “It takes a lot of hard work.”

Hard work was exactly what he demanded from his small cast, which consisted of thirty-two high school students and ten elementary school kids. Putting on the Wizard of Oz involves an arduous and complicated “twenty-three different locations. Scene change after scene change after scene change,” which as Wilson noted, “forces you to be really creative with how you stage it.”

He said there are a surprising number of different scripts and scores for the Wizard of Oz. The one used for Fond du Lac High School’s production was the Royal Shakespeare Academy’s 1989 version, which Wilson said, “follows the movie almost exactly.”

He said difference between productions of the same play come down to directorial choice. “All live theater is, is a series of choices,” he said. “So the director is going to be making choices about visual aspects of the show, how the characters interact.”

One specific example he brought up was that of the Cowardly Lion’s costume. “Our costumer didn’t want to go with, like, the traditional,” he said. “She called it a mascot suit for the lion and the Tin Man, you know, which is great.”

He was also proud of how they staged other aspects of the show, such as the tornado. ”A lot of your choices and a lot of the things that you decide are going to be based on your facility’s capabilities, money, directorial esthetic, those sorts of things.” He said.

Wilson would know- he’s an old hand with plays. “I’ve been in the theater since I was a freshman in high school. Got a minor in it at my other job, taught it for 13 years in Arizona and just kind of kept going and going and going and going. This is my 34th year of teaching and my 33rd doing theater.”

However, even with all of his experience, he couldn’t have predicted how much the last two years would disrupt his work- or how much of a struggle it would be to try to resume putting on plays while the crisis was still ongoing. “I always was referring to clearing the COVID cobwebs out of people’s brains, myself included. Schneider and I talked a lot about how we both felt like we were off of our game, just in terms of organization and communication and all that stuff with each other, but also the cast members.”

Though Wilson didn’t believe that the COVID-19 pandemic complicated matters too much, especially once the adults involved in the production were vaccinated and vaccination was opened up to high schoolers, the production still encountered issues. “Schneider was out for 10 days, about three weeks before we opened,” he said. “So that was a little terrifying. I just chose not to think what would happen if, like our Dorothy [tested] positive for COVID, … if she had gotten COVID last week or two weeks ago, that’s it. Everything goes dark and that’s it.”

Wilson said ticket sales were strong. “It would have been interesting to see had there not been the risk of COVID,” he said. “Because usually when you do a show like the Wizard of Oz that everybody’s familiar with, you could probably count on one if not all of the shows selling out and we didn’t have a single sellout.”

While he was disappointed about turnout, Mr. Wilson also had glowing praise for the performances that were the culmination of so much effort. “I think that it was incredibly successful.” He said. “If anything, just to have the opportunity to perform theater live for an audience. I mean, I would consider that successful but if you notch it up even more, watching the growth of the actors as the rehearsal process proceeded to, you know, the final end product- very proud of everybody.”

Mr. Wilson was philosophical as he looked back on the experience of making The Wizard of Oz, saying that while creating something can be difficult, painful, and time consuming, it can also be incredibly exciting to see your creation come to life. He added that “I think COVID has done one great thing that COVID has done is shown how important the arts are to people.”

Clearly, Mr. Wilson isn’t one to rest on his laurels. The Addams Family will premiere on Fond du Lac High School’s stage in spring 2022, and we at Cardinal Columns are looking forward to it.