Make the “Journey to Oz” at Victoria


The Experiential Theatre troup: Dan Brunson, Nicia Carla Moore, Chaz Pofahl, Tiffany Bear, and Tommy Foster, Journey to Oz. Photo: John Merrick

By Don Hurst

Tornadoes flinging farmhouses to alternate dimensions. Vengeful witches attempting to blow up puppies. Winged monkeys swarming scarecrows, lions, and tin men. The Experiential Theatre’s Journey to Oz doesn’t just give audiences a front seat view of the mayhem—it puts them right smack in the middle of L. Frank Baum’s iconic classic.

When the storm sweeps Dorothy from Kansas, the audience is right there with her. The professional cast invites theatregoers onto the stage with them to perform as munchkins, flying monkeys, and even Dorothy herself. Guided by the highly trained actors, children won’t just witness the Journey to Oz. They embark on that same trip, skipping down that yellow brick road themselves.

Writer and director Christopher Parks wants the audience to experience the first great American fairy tale from the inside. He wants them to feel what it would be like to get sucked into one of his favorite stories. “Ever since I was a little kid I loved books, not just reading them, but actually holding the book, feeling the spine and the pages,” Parks says. “When books open, magic happens.” 

Part of that magic is that no performance is exactly like any of the others. No other audiences will experience the same show. Each production takes on the personality of the volunteers dancing and acting with the cast.

Not many theatre groups would feel comfortable surrendering that kind of control to amateurs. Parks loves it. During rehearsals he throws his actors improvisation curveballs to train them to respect the audience’s choices while also guiding the story to where it needs to go. The destination is always the same but the road getting
there can change.

So far no one has derailed a show. Parks has found that audiences want to work together to create a shared story. When kids step on stage and take on the roles of characters, they tend to show more empathy. They faithfully see the world through the characters’ eyes. Audiences also engage more with the story than those just sitting passively in a more traditional play. They pay more attention when they know they could jump on stage at any second.

The Experiential Theatre’s brand of actor/audience collaboration came from Parks’ concern about too much exclusivity in the performing arts. Too many productions only make room for the most talented kids while the rest are destined to watch from the seats. Parks wants to give everyone the joy of performing on a stage. “Everybody deserves to experience theatre,” Parks says.

Experiencing theatre can be torture for children. Sit down. Shut up. Don’t get up to use the bathroom. Don’t fidget. It might actually be worse than school. Theatre can be especially torturous for children with sensory disorders such as autism. Lighting changes, sound effects, and crowds can trigger behaviors that don’t mesh well with typical theatre etiquette.

To fulfill the mission that everybody deserves to experience theatre, the Victoria Theatre Association and the Experiential Theatre collaborated to create a sensory friendly performance of Journey to Oz. Autism experts from the Cincinnati and Dayton Children’s Hospitals coached the Victoria on how to make theatre more inviting for kids with sensory challenges.

Parents can download a social narrative that addresses many of the unknowns that cause anxiety and helps them to understand what they can expect. Once at the theatre, children will meet house staff who have received training on how to communicate effectively with children on the spectrum. Ushers will hand out programs that describe the plot and contain photographs of the actors in costume to prevent confusion.

The Experiential Theatre modified the performance to make it more sensory friendly. Jarring sound and lighting effects are minimized to prevent the audience from feeling overwhelmed and surprised. In case of an episode, medical staff will be present to assist families with interventions and calming techniques. Children can also use the quiet room if they just need a moment alone to re-center themselves.

“We have established a judgment-free zone. No one is going to shush you here,” Amy Handra, Associate Director of Education and Engagement at the Victoria, says. The house lights will not turn all the way down so the audience can move around as they need. The staff even allows fidget toys to help children remain calm.

The unpredictability of participatory theatre might not sound like a comfortable match for a sensory friendly production, but Parks’ team has experience guiding children with special needs. If a child would rather just watch, that is fine as well. Participate or just spectate, it does not matter as long as children are connecting with theatre.

“Theatre and the arts should be inclusive. Everyone is welcome to our theatre,”
Handra says.

The Journey to Oz plays at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. in Dayton, on Apr. 7 at 1 p.m. and 4 and the sensory friendly performance on Apr. 8 at 2. Tickets are $15 – $16. For more information go to VictoriaTheatre.com or call 937.228.3630.

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Don Hurst
Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at DonHurst@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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