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Behind the scenes: CBU Theatre Arts Department gears for third night of Dorothy, Toto and Oz

Production director, Stacee Tweedlie Willis, details the process from auditions, to dress rehearsals, to opening night and her involvement with the university's current production.

Picture of CBU students in character for current production "The Wizard of Oz"
CBU students in character during the opening night of the university’s current production, “The Wizard of Oz.” The play was performed at the Wallace Theatre to a sold-out crowd Friday, April 1.

Lions, tigers and bears are back again, oh my! California Baptist University is set to hit the Wallace Stage for the third night of its current production, “The Wizard of Oz,” Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

The play, which held its opening night Friday, April 1 to a sold-out crowd, is the university’s first ever production to include flying performers. Stacee Tweedlie Willis, an adjunct theater professor in the communication arts department at CBU and the play’s director, said it was her first time being involved with a play that included a flying element.

The students, she added, were given three additional days of rehearsal to properly learn the flying techniques which were provided by an outside company hired by the university.

“That was definitely a very big learning curve for us,”  Tweedlie Willis said.

As college-run productions, CBU plays are often conceptualized by theater students who have the option to submit ideas. Suggestions are then finalized and chosen by the theatre staff and Lee Lyons, a professor of theater and director of the theatre department at the university.

According to Tweedlie Willis, CBU’s “The Wizard of Oz” is only the third in-person production since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students first auditioned for roles near the end of the fall semester in 2021 and began rehearsing by mid-January after the university pushed back the start of the spring semester. She said she was unable to see the students’ faces as “everyone wore masks and face shields” due to safety measures in place at the time.

Student performers and audience members are currently not required to wear masks inside Wallace Theatre.

Before opening night, the students ran through daily dress rehearsals to review all technical aspects of the play.  Tweedlie Willis said it’s a time stage performers call: cue-to-cue.

“The challenge for me as a director is they will have to run it four times all the way through,” Tweedlie Willis said. “So, [I] encourage them to keep their energy up to make new choices that keep the story alive for them, but not such bold choices that it changes everything we’ve done.”

Tweedlie Willis, who also runs The Tweedlie Center for the Arts (TCA Riverside), a children’s theater, was initially asked to step in as production director in December 2021. This was her first time directing a play for the university to which she described as “good pressure.”

“I’m used to being behind the curtains, working backstage,” she said.

As the director Tweedlie Willis’ role is more hands-on; she’s involved with every aspect from the lighting designers, set designers — which is headed by Lee Lyons — and all others who handle the props and costumes. She said the entire team comes together with ideas but ultimately asks for her perspective.

What she said she loves most is the new opportunity to sit with the audience and watch the performers. She planned ahead to be present for every showcase.

“​​I want to be there to support them,” she said. “I want to be there to see the little nuances that change every night.”

Remaining production dates are scheduled for Friday, April 8, and Saturday, April 9. General admission tickets start at $15 and can be purchased here.