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Interview: Tommy Rapley, The House Theatre of Chicago

By Chris Karr in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 29, 2005 9:24AM

Last year, in their first year of eligibility, The House Theatre of Chicago received twelve nominations for Jeff Citations. Of those twelve nominations, House choreographer Tommy Rapley received two nominations and won one Citation for his work on the original House production of “Cave With Man”. Tommy is a contemporary ballet dancer by trade, but in recent months, he’s been directing and choreographing the House’s latest production, “The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz” – a retelling of the classic Baum story in a style that hearkens back to the House’s breakout production of “The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan”. As the reviews for “Oz” were beginning to roll in, Tommy sat down with us to talk about his directorial debut.

Tommy Rapley

Chicagoist: How did you get started directing?

Tommy: Well, we’re a very collaborative company and I’ve been working with Nate [Allen] pretty closely since “Peter Pan” and I kind of knew that this is where I wanted to be heading – directing is the next step for my artistic career. So I approached Nate about directing about a year ago, before “Cave With Man”. I assistant-directed that show with him and also “Curse of the Crying Heart” with Dennis [Watkins], which basically meant that I tagged along to production meetings and did things in the other room when they were busy – which is very helpful. So when the time came to find some other directors within the company, it made sense for me to direct “Wizard of Oz” with Phil [Klapperich] and that’s how I got whirlpooled into it, I guess.

Chicagoist: “The Wizard of Oz” is a classic American tale. Was it a challenge adapting that content in your first time as a director?

Tommy: I definitely did everything I could to put around myself the best creative support team possible, from our production manager Dixie Uffelman to having Nate there as the artistic director for the first time being the outside eye on the process, and of course all the actors and Ben, Collette, Kevin O’Donnell, Michael Griggs – the design team is just impeccable. Laurie Klapperich – the costumes are beautiful. So it really helps to have a roomful of artists that I’ve had a dialog with before and I felt open and comfortable taking a position on something and having a vision for the play.

There are a lot of things that I like about the story and I grew up watching the Judy Garland version when I was a kid. I’m a big musical theatre fan and I always loved the whole Broadway deal and all the big production numbers – the lonely girl singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. That’s always been a big part of that story and I thought that as wonderful and true to our hearts that is, there’s something missing in it and the realism of being thrust into something new and dark and scary was never really captured by the Technicolor yellow brick and the pretty glistening red shoes and all that. It wasn’t really quite as full as I always thought that it could be. So, having the opportunity to revamp that stuff and put a little more blood and guts on it was really fun.

Chicagoist: Could you describe the nature of the collaborative relationship between you and playwright Phillip Klapperich?

Tommy: Sure. We’re basically both there to tell each other “yes” and “no” in a really great way. We really think differently about things and Phil has a brilliant mind for plot and structure and story and he paints in really broad strokes as a writer. I’m very detail-oriented, coming from the dance world, and I’m particular about the external view of things, and how they are physically, and in-stage picture, and a whole slew of other things that get in my way a bunch of times. And so having Phil there was helpful to ground me in the story. He and I are both really good about being able to see beyond what we think is right and to see the other person’s point. I think, in general, here at the House, we do a pretty good job of listening to what the other person has to say and if you disagree with it or don’t get it and there’s something deeper there – besides it not being the right thing – coming to that understanding of the middle ground is where we come up with our best stuff. So it’s really important to have someone there to say “no” to you and to say “yes” to you.

Chicagoist: Were there any times where you had to tell Phillip that there was something in the story that just didn’t work on the stage and you needed to change or remove it?

Tommy: The play went through many many drafts and restructuring. There’s a part in the play where you see Cliff Chamberlain sing “Try a Little Tenderness” in the middle of the poppy field. Originally, that was something where Phil wanted the poppies to be singing the song to them and trying to get them to stay in the field, but really it’s about the Tin Man finding his heart and learning to love again. So, in the original draft, I never felt like we were getting the story of what that was, because we’re trying to do two things at once, which is difficult and I think that when people are trying to do two things at once, that’s when the story gets muddy. So little things like that. With the tornado, there were big scenes that happened before the tornado and we trimmed it. There were never any things where I was like, “No. This will never work.” It was all just trimming down the stuff that we didn’t need in order to tell the right story.

Probably the hardest was the road west scene where the crows attack, and the wolves attack, and the monkeys attack – making that feel like it really escalated – the monsters were getting bigger and bigger, and scarier and scarier - culminating in the flying monkey attack and that being a really important thing. In the script, it’s very cinematic and it goes back and forth from scene to scene, back and forth from the witch to them on the road – that was probably the scene that I had the most trouble wrapping my head around. But we fixed those problems together and we fixed them in the rehearsal room to come up with something that was right and imaginative.

Chicagoist: Did you find yourself returning to the book or the film when trying to structure these scenes and deciding what to present?

Tommy: I definitely watched the film and I watched “Return to Oz”, as well, and I read the book several times. Although I found the book to be inspirational towards what not to do with the treatment of things. The book is a children’s book, but it’s a little boring, I found. It’s very “this happens, this happens, this happens” and you don’t get a whole lot of action or drama. Everything just seems so light that it rolls off everyone’s back through the whole story, so I thought that was something to try and stay away from. In the movie, there are so many great moments, but we tried consciously to stay away from throwing in a bunch of jabs at the movie – about it being in Technicolor or that the Dorothy in our story would even know that story. She’s supposed to be a contemporary girl from Kansas, certainly in our contemporary world. Every girl in Kansas knows the story of “The Wizard of Oz”. We tried to stay away from that stuff because we didn’t want to get immersed in comparing ourselves to something that so established and so beloved.

People – I know I do as an audience member – want to feel like the people making this are at least aware that those traditions, those stereotypes, those archetypes exist and are willing to play toward them. There are a couple of lines in the play that are in the movie, because you want to hear them at the right time and say “Oh! That’s right. We’re watching a play about… That there was a movie about that. We saw that movie and they’re about the same thing.” I think that is better that you keep forgetting and being reminded, than to always feel like you’re watching the newest adaptation of the adaptation of the book, that was made into a musical, that was made into a movie, etcetera, etcetera…

Chicagoist: Reading some of the comments and reviews, we get the impression that this is being seen as the anti-“Wicked”. What are your thoughts on that?

Tommy: Horray! Actually, I love Stephen Schwartz, and again, I love musical theatre and would gladly audition for the cast of “Wicked”.

Chicagoist: (Laughter)

Tommy: But I’m really pleased. There are a lot of versions of “The Wizard of Oz” that are out right now. It seems to be a popular… we seem to have our fingers on the pulse of that, in a really good way, I think. There’s a Muppet version that just came out. Certainly “Wicked” is a huge success. [Inaudible] is writing a play called “Was” that I’m sure is going to be great and wonderful. And there’s a puppet show version of “The Wizard of Oz” that’s out in Andersonville right now that I’m going to see next week. So, we definitely had to factor that into what we’re doing. I think that… I haven’t seen “Wicked”, but I know the music pretty well, and we went to theatre camp centered around “The Wizard of Oz”. Every twelve year-old girl knows the story of “Wicked”. Everyone.

But where I feel that’s about the retelling of a story that is completely fictional and they weave in the story that we know and love through that so that you get a fuller version of “The Wizard of Oz”, we tried to tell the same story that you know and love. It’s not about the witch – it’s about Dorothy. It’s not about saving the animals – it’s about saving the land of Oz. We tried to tell the same story that everyone knows and loves with the Tin Man and the Lion and the Scarecrow and Toto and all that good stuff in a way that had never been seen before. I’m excited that it’s our first female protagonist that is really driving the show and it’s about her and it’s a very round myth that we’re telling. I’m excited about that.

If we can make a couple extra bucks being the anti-“Wicked” instead of being “Wicked”, that’s fine.

Chicagoist: Now that the show has opened and is largely out of your hands, what are you doing to recuperate?

Tommy: I’m going to Spain. For ten days. My boyfriend and I are going to Spain. I’m very excited about that. We leave on Tuesday. Hopefully the reviews will come in and the rest will be good and I’ll get away from my cell phone and any sort of e-mail access and sit on the beach on the Mediterranean for a couple of days. Other than that, I don’t feel like I have my hands off the show and I plan on going quite a bit. It’s really fun to watch and I have a hard time taking notes or being an outside eye because I get sucked into what’s going on – which is great and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Chicagoist: After all of this, where do you go to decompress? Do you have any bars you frequent or restaurants that you would recommend to readers?

Tommy: Sure. The Hungry Brain – after a show, we love The Hungry Brain on Belmont. I’ve been known to frequent a little gay sports bar called Crew Bar & Grill on Lawrence and Broadway. The guy who plays Toto works there and we’ll go and have a pint. Kelo Ristorante on Clark and Berwyn has some very good Italian food and a nice glass of wine. It’s right there in Andersonville – it’s very nice.

Chicagoist: Any parting thoughts or words for our readers?

Tommy: I hope that everyone has a good time and come see the show. Check it out. It’s got a very “Buffy” mentality to it – well, I hope that it does – and I hope you have a good time when you see it.


“The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz” is running through November 5 at the Viaduct Theatre on Belmont and Western. Visit the House’s website for information about the show and how to get tickets. Chicagoist would like to thank Tommy for sitting down with us and we hope he’s enjoying his well-earned vacation.