The iconic 1939 American fantasy musical is getting a side-splitting twist on stage this August as The Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society presents “The Wizard of Oy“ as part of its annual Senior Summerworks Project. Montreal Theatre Hub’s Camila Fitzgibbon spoke with writer, director, and choreographer Ari Sterlin in fervent anticipation of the show’s premiere, presented at the Harold Greenspon Auditorium from August 24th to 27th, 2017. Read the full interview piece below.
THE WOMAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN
Ari Sterlin is onto something remarkable.
“I don’t know what that is, but there’s something very different and interesting that’s happening here.”
There’s no place like having a home and a creative outlet, we reckon, for nurturing and expressing one’s passion.
Founded 3 years ago, The Senior Summerworks Project strives to pair senior citizens (aged 55+) and other community members with young, emerging local artists annually for a 3-month rehearsal process that culminates in a series of public performances at the end of every summer. This year, Sterlin has rewritten and adapted the beloved classic story of the “The Wizard of Oz” to produce an all-new musical parody with themes and subjects pertinent to its performers and audiences.
Sanctioned by Côte Saint-Luc Mayor and Producer Mitchell Brownstein and CSLDS Artistic Director Anisa Cameron, the program fits under the Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society umbrella, completing and closing the company’s 2017 season in tow of main stage shows “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Our Town”, both presented earlier this year.
Senior Summerworks, however, is a particularly unique and trailblazing initiative by the acclaimed theatre troupe, who in fostering some of Montreal’s greatest stage talent has received prestigious META Awards for its professional quality productions of “The Producers” (2016) and “Hairspray” (2014). Tapping into a largely underserved niche market, the goal here, rather, is to promote inclusivity and accessibility by providing opportunities for older thespians – emerald green or seasoned in the biz – to perform.
“The concept for the project came when I realized that there was this group of seniors in our community who loved theatre and were no longer finding a place in shows for them,” Sterlin shares. “I noticed, though, that mainstream musicals written for a large, full senior cast were impossible to find. They simply don’t exist. If we wanted to put on a production with that kind of an ensemble, we would have to develop something original.”
Sterlin is the heart, the brain, and the nerve of The Wizard of Oy and the Summer SeniorWorks program. “A group of friends and I were actually just talking one day about how funny it would be if we took these well-known Broadway musicals and gave them seniors’ twists to create a new piece.” In one evening, an entire list of ideas was generated. “By parodying these popular shows, we figured performers would still get to sing tunes and play characters that they knew and loved, but then they would also get the wonderful opportunity to originate a role and work with fresh new material.”
The refurbished dialogue and lyrics, furthermore, are locally tailored. “There are a lot of Jewish jokes and references to Côte Saint-Luc and Montreal,” notes Sterlin. As the director has gotten to know performers over the years, parts are written and adapted to take into consideration the personalities and idiosyncracies of individual cast members.
LIFE IN TECHNICOLOUR
The Wizard of Oy has the same feel of the beloved classic upon which is based, preserving the wonderful surface of comedy and music and the aspects of the underlying story that penetrate to the deepest of personal insecurities. “The show still has all of the recognizable characters – the Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man – but they’ve all also got a twist,” reveals Sterlin. In this rejuvenated retelling, the pert and wonder-eyed Dorothy goes down a different brick road, first appearing as a golden-aged curmudgeon who then proceeds to embark on a journey to find her youth.
“There’s a lot of talk about the aging process and getting older,” elaborates Sterlin, whose foremost intent is to incorporate into the reworked script themes pertinent to seniors with humour and tact. “With our first show GrAnnie we explored the subject of family and what it’s like to not have your grandkids visit you as much anymore. Florida, a parody of Chicago, was about the challenges of growing up as an actor and not being able to find roles as an older woman. This year, the topic is youth and how your age is really so much more about how you feel and act. ‘You can be youthful at any age’ is the message we hope to get across.”
In establishing an exceptional environment for adults to return to the world of play, the program itself is most emblematic of that philosophy.
“What strikes me most is seeing the appreciation and the joy that these seniors get from this experience. They tell me they look forward to it every single year and how happy it makes them. It gets them out of the house and gives them something to do.
“Also, it’s wonderful to get to see a lot of them learn and develop new skills, especially as several are novice actors who have never done a musical before.” Blocking, dancing, and line-learning prove worthy cognitive and physical workouts to counter shades of grey.
The diverse cast of 17 actors consists of both CSLDS veterans and newcomers. Hannah Sheffren, who plays Dorothy, previously portrayed the title role in Grannie, amongst other roles. The youngest cast member this year is 6-year-old Ryan Hill in the role of Toto. The production team includes Daniel Witkowski, a McGill music graduate, as musical director, and Elisabeth Nyveen, a student in Concordia’s Design for the Theatre program, as set/costume/props designer.
With ostracism being an all-too common fate for the retiring populace, the project transcends the technicalities of putting on a spectacle, moving into the realms of something profoundly human. “We don’t really think about teaching seniors, do we? At this precise moment, I have this knowledge that I can share that allows others to discover and be a part of this world that I love so much. It feels very rewarding for me to be able to give this to these people and to see how much they get out of it”, reflects Sterlin.
On the challenges of tackling mature themes as a young artist: “I think that a lot of people believe that concerns pertaining to seniors are sort of beyond our grasp, but I find that they’ve very, very relatable problems. I don’t personally know what it’s like to long for my youth, of course, but I can certainly imagine what it would be like to not be able to do the things that I once used to.” Empathy is at the core of great theatre, and Sterlin in her wit has seemingly little struggle stepping into someone else’s ruby slippers. “While the shows obviously take time to write, I actually don’t find it all that difficult to get into that mindset of thinking about issues such as family or the future. I too have grandparents and have gotten to know many seniors who, over the years, have come to talk to me about their fears and wishes.”
Summer Seniorworks is indeed an enterprise without equal in Montreal, perhaps quite literally keeping the vital beat of its members alive through the sustained efforts led by Sterlin and support of the Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society. “I would love for there to be more opportunities in theatre for seniors all over,” she speaks on her long-term vision for the project, which already boasts credible solidity. “I hope for it to stay like this for as long as it can maintain itself. As long as the community still wants it, we will continue to supply it.”
We’ll be off to see the Wizard between August 24th and 27th in what promises to be a hilarious, touching, intelligent, and wholly spirited production.
The Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society’s Senior Summerworks Project presents
THE WIZARD OF OY
A new musical parody by Ari Sterlin
Harold Greenspon Auditorium
(5801 Cavendish Blvd., Côte Saint-Luc, QC, H4W 3C3)
Sunday, August 27 @ 11:00 A.M. and 3:00 P.M.
Run time: 1 hour with no intermission
Tickets ($15) available at www.csldramaticsociety.com
and in person at the Eleanor London Public Library and the Aquatic and Community Centre
Director and Choreographer: Ari Sterlin
Musical Director: Daniel Witkowski
Set, Costume and Prop Designer: Elisabeth Nyveen
Stage Manager: Emma Loerick
Hannah Sheffren, Ryan Hill, Christine Dandurand, Dan Sterlin, Norm Spatz, Jeffrey Waxman, Lou Schiff, Toby Clark, Judy Kenigsberg, Bev Silverman, Janet Garmaise, Helen Gwiazda, Melanie Chahine, Mitchell Kujavsky, Ellen Rabin, Adena Schnarch, Phyllis Schnarch
ABOUT THE COTE SAINT-LUC DRAMATIC SOCIETY
The 2-time META Award-winning Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society is a community theatre initiative that began in the summer of 2011 in partnership with the City of Côte Saint-Luc. The goal is to bring together actors, writers, musicians and other artistically minded community members to produce theatrical works in an inclusive environment where emphasis is placed on team work and camaraderie, not celebrity. www.csldramaticsociety.com