Following the yellow brick road of hard work to the final production of The Wizard of Oz

Following the yellow brick road of hard work to the final production of The Wizard of Oz
Simone Collins plays Dorothy at the dress rehearsals for The Wizard of Oz at Cork Opera House.

As audiences get ready to click their heels together for The Wizard of Oz at Cork Opera House, producer Holly Carey shares her behind the scenes diary with Ciara McDonnell of what it’s really like to bring a production of this magnitude to life.

JANUARY

Our director Wayne Jordan is one of the most creative, innovative talents working in Irish theatre and he is on a flying visit from his home in Prague to begin design conversations with the creative team and start auditions. A huge challenge for our designer is the Yellow Brick Road.

The stalls in the Opera House are only very gently raked so how does our audience see it from there?

Thankfully we have the award-winning designer Maree Kearns coming up with an ingenious idea, which I hope audiences will love.

We are beginning three days of auditions in Cork and, once again, we’re really impressed with the actors we have here. We always start with local talent, there’s a lot of it and we’re very serious about nurturing it as much as possible; it’s the bedrock of future shows for years to come.

FEBRUARY

Wayne is back, and we launch into days of auditions and creative meetings in Cork, Dublin and London — we’re really into the heart of the auditions now, looking for talent in three cities.

We’ve had over 2,000 submissions from actors and performers. We’re thrilled with our finalised creative team too, which boasts some serious Cork creative heavyweights like our Musical Director John O’Brien and Costume Designer Joan Hickson who has created over 150 handmade costumes for this production alone.

We get to see the White Card Model of the set this month, which is a 3-D scale model and there’s a sense developing now of what the show might very well look like, even though we are well over five months out from opening night.

The night before we fly to the London auditions, someone confesses to a missing passport – a producer’s work is never done!

Malcolm Adams (Wizard of Oz) and Simone Collins (Dorothy) in the Rehearsal Studio. Photo credit: John Allen.
Malcolm Adams (Wizard of Oz) and Simone Collins (Dorothy) in the Rehearsal Studio. Photo credit: John Allen.

MARCH

We hold our ensemble auditions the day after St Patrick’s Day in Dublin. We have people travelling from all over the UK and Ireland for these and it snowed heavily overnight so flights into Dublin airport are a mess.

I’m expecting our schedule to be in carnage but the Casting Director is brilliant at keeping everything moving forward and when I arrive at the venue we’ve lost just four performers to the weather. We see over 100 actors over the day, with three huge studios in full swing, between movement calls, vocal auditions and a warm-up space. We have a brilliant cast.

One of my favourite things is that the Tinman and Scarecrow were ensemble members in Annie last year; I love to see talent get an opportunity to develop with us.

I cast John Currivan, our Lion, in his first professional role straight out of drama school years ago when I was Casting Director at the Abbey Theatre. I’m so happy to work with him again on this.

There’s our wonderful Dorothy, Simone Collins, who will shine and I’ve no doubt that she is going to be a huge star. And of course, the brilliant Malcolm Adams and George Hanover are returning Cork natives, which we’re thrilled about.

APRIL

Wayne, designer Maree and I have a meeting over a glass of wine to discuss where we’re at with our set — and what it costs.

Looks like I might need more than the one! Wayne and I head to Dublin for further design and budget meetings and then on to my old haunt, the Abbey, for an opening night.

It’s lovely being back and seeing old friends and colleagues, but am looking forward to getting back to Cork tomorrow; I always feel a little bit calmer when I see that Port of Cork sign!

Holly Carey with John O’Brien and Conor Palliser in the rehearsal studio for Cork Opera House’s production of The Wizard of Oz. Photo credit: John Allen.
Holly Carey with John O’Brien and Conor Palliser in the rehearsal studio for Cork Opera House’s production of The Wizard of Oz. Photo credit: John Allen.

MAY

We’re really focused on Wizard, but in a producing house, you are always looking to the show beyond the next show, and the next one after that — so auditions for Aladdin, the Christmas panto start today and we’re expecting to read the first draft of the script next month! Christmas comes early for me!

It’s all hands on deck for our official cast photos this month. These are the images that will be seen all over the media, on posters and on the giant billboard on the North Wall of the Opera House. Our Dorothy and Wicked Witch look stunning.

JUNE

It’s all systems go, and Wayne moves to Cork, where he will base himself until we open. Workshop week with the principal actors begins on June 11. It’s a big day for everyone as they go into an intensive week to get to the heart of this famous story.

We enjoy a lot of introductions and see a few nerves as everyone gets the feel for their characters and each other.

After this, we have a production meeting for a big, full-orchestra concert with chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan. I’m also trying to spend as much time as I can with my (almost) two-year-old daughter who is beginning to wonder who this strange lady is who runs home to put her to bed every night before running back out the door again with a sandwich in her hand!

On June 18, the full company rehearsals begin. This is always one of the most exciting days for me. The energy is electric and it’s absolutely thrilling to see everybody together for the first time. We need to keep everyone moving in the same direction now and as one.

That means harnessing the brilliance and focus of almost fifty performers, a creative team, the in-house team and a number of other players. Simple!

At this stage, life for the Assistant Producer Rory Murphy and I involves a hundred phone calls a day, a lot of coffee and many missed lunches. Sandwiches and ice cream keep us going.

It’s exciting but we are really starting to see the mountain loom up before us now — time for the final push. I couldn’t do what I do without Rory. I hope I tell him that often enough!

I’m feeling very grateful for our in-house tech team too. I’ve great colleagues at the Opera House and that keeps you going.

JULY

The band arrives on July 8 and starts working with Maestro O’Brien and then the company arrives — it’s magic to hear them all together.

The actors tell me that this is one of their favourite days on a show. Mine too. The final pieces are starting to fall into place. The final run (where we run the play right through) is on Tuesday, July 10, in our rehearsal space off Barrack Street (we’ve been fuelling up on pizzas from Tom Barry’s Pub) and then we move into the theatre.

The costumes are almost finalised — they look fantastic but as always, there are tweaks here and there. The three friends’ costumes are a feat of modern engineering!

In particular the Tin Man’s. It’s one thing the costumes looking good, but the actors also need to be able to move, dance, climb, fall and get up again and be comfortable.

We are in the final furlong, deep in technical rehearsals from July 14 — the moment where we bring all elements of the show together on the set in the theatre, from costume and lighting to sound, and we methodically work our way through the show scene by scene.

George Hanover as Miss Amira Gulch in the rehearsal studio for Cork Opera House’s production of The Wizard of Oz photo credit John Allen.
George Hanover as Miss Amira Gulch in the rehearsal studio for Cork Opera House’s production of The Wizard of Oz photo credit John Allen.

It’s an intensively focused time for everyone involved in the production and we work from early morning until very late at night every day. Good-bye life! I won’t really see my daughter Blythe, outside of an hour at breakfast, until after we open next Saturday.

My husband Joe is holding the fort at home — duties include keeping all of my hanging baskets and flower pots alive, which is really tough during a hose-pipe ban!

After the dress rehearsal, we have our first preview. Preview audiences know that there can be some last-minute gremlins and there are no press reviews before the official opening night, but everyone is still going to be a little nervous. Next up – opening night!

So we’re off down the Yellow Brick Road. I stop and think about what we’ve achieved and how far we’ve come from that single script.

Despite all the challenges, the highs and the lows, boy, do I love my job. Why? Well, because. Just… Because because, because, because, because…

The Wizard of Oz continues at the Opera House until August 26.

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