Richardson — This weekend, the national tour of the musical The Wizard of Oz comes to the Eisemann Center in Richardson. TheaterJones chatted with Austin resident Emily Perzan, who plays the Wicked Witch of the West, about her career and the fun of playing wicked. This tour is the musical based on the L. Frank Baum novel with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. (Not the more recent version with contributions by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.)
TheaterJones: How and when did you fall in love with theater?
Emily Perzan: I started dancing when I was 3 years old. I was hooked on the power of applause. My mother took me to see The Nutcracker Suite in Hartford, Conn., and then to see the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall in NYC, also during my preschool years. From the beginning, I was dancing in my seat and singing along much to the chagrin of those seated around me. So it is easy to say that theater, and particularly musical theater, was always in my soul.
What was your career track from high school, college and beyond in theater?
I felt very different from my classmates in elementary school because I saw the world as a creative outlet. I started performing with theaters in middle school which led to me choose a high school with a strong dance and theater program. I performed with the Connecticut Children’s Chorus that traveled to various cities in the U.S. to perform and of course at the regional theaters in Connecticut. My days were in school and my nights were performing, or taking classes. I took nine dance classes to supplement my school program and private voice lessons at the Hartt School Community division.
I have always been very busy and I love my life that way. I have learned seven different musical instruments and that also helped my mind solidify that I was meant to be on the stage performing. So, dancing 30 or so hours weekly plus taking lessons in high school, I felt it only natural to look for a conservatory for my college education. I couldn’t pick between dancing or acting so a BFA in musical theater was the major I chose. I went to Point Park Conservatory for a year but finished my degree in the BFA Conservatory program from the University of Hartford in the UHARTT Conservatory with honors and a minor in English.
While in college, I learned about the technical aspects of theater as well as performing in seven musicals in all genres. Predominantly a dancer, it was wonderful to learn about combining all the aspects of my passion into a character and put on a larger scale production. I am very grateful to my professors and all the lessons they taught me while in all levels of school. I credit my professionalism and knowledge to my teachers over the years. Without them I would never be where I am today. After college I performed for two years in New England, first on a small tour of The Rocky Horror Show and five other regional productions in CT. After that I moved to Austin,Texas to complete my second degree. I finished my second degree in American Sign Language in Austin and fell in the love with the city and the power of deaf culture. Now I call Austin my home as it is alive with music. After completing my second degree I became a U.S. rowing coach and raced around the country. But my heart wasn’t full. I was missing the stage. From 2015-2017 I performed in 16 musicals in the Austin area. I was blessed to play some bucket-list roles and met some amazing performers. Most recently, this summer I was humbled to be studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Was there a game-changing moment that confirmed that this was the life for you?
I wouldn’t say that there was a moment that I knew that this was the life for me. It is a hard life and it is a life full of rejection. I have to be internally strong enough to keep fighting for the passion of performing. I can over-prepare for an audition and have something go wrong in those precious few moments that I'm performing. It is that momentary failure that is important feedback for what I will do differently next time. Between acting jobs I developed a lot of other skills to enrich my character development and of course to keep myself housed and fed. But I I knew that without that feel of telling stories, through singing, dancing and acting, I was not complete. That compelling feeling never left me but it was on mute for a while. It is important to me to give back to the community. Whether I get paid or I don’t, I will never stop being an actress. On the stage, under the lights is where I belong. I remember the influence actors had on me as a child and I hope that I am having that same influence on a young actor. Or maybe inspire someone who has left the stage to get back up under the lights and tell a beautiful story. This is why I keep doing it. There is no other feeling like breathing with live actors on a stage. Those raw and explosive emotions, taking us away from our reality, even if only for an hour or two, is life shaping. It is the art and science of theater that reaches out to humanity in so many ways. And that is why I keep performing, not just for me, because it makes me happy but because I love what my acting could possibly do to or for someone else.
Tell me about auditioning for the Wicked Witch and getting the call that you were cast.
I flew to New York City from Austin to audition for the national tour. I stood in line with hundreds of other women and men of all ages for hours for the chance to sing. That same day after singing I was notified that I was called back for the Wicked Witch later that same week. I had my callback along with about eight other women who were called back for the same role. And I do remember our Dorothy, Kalie, at the call back in NYC as well. After the callback I flew back home to Austin to perform in Rent. Two months later I received an email from Prather Entertainment. I will never forget that tingling feeling and the excitement when I read that I was cast as the Wicked Witch. Two days earlier I had been cast as The Wicked Witch of the West at the Zilker Hillside Theater in Austin, so she is most definitely in my blood. I was so excited. My whole life I wanted to tour the country, the world, and now was my opportunity. My mother was the first person that I called and then my dad! I couldn’t imagine being where I am without their love and support and they are over the moon with excitement for my success and ability to live my dream of touring around the country.
There are many well-known portrayals of the Wicked Witch. How do you make the role your own?
My laugh is a cackle. I remember the first time I auditioned for The Wizard of Oz I wanted to play Dorothy and the director looked at me and said “Emily, just laugh, who do you think you have in your soul?” He was right. She is certainly deep in my soul. Although I am not a wicked person, I have such a blast making this Witch a part of me. I do have vocal inflections that are certainly a nod at the great Margret Hamilton, but with my vocal training, I play with my voice a bit more than she did. The stage [musical] and the film are certainly different but I do like to make sure I stick close to what the audience is looking for in a villain. The witch walks like a gremlin, growls like a demon, and I make her green and spunky. She is certainly an energetic witch and in most scenes I find myself feeling like I just ran a marathon after leaving the stage. I put the witch in my finger tips and toes, I make sure that every ounce of my body is expressive and exuding evil. I have spent many hours sitting in front of the mirror working on different facial expression to help with character development as well. I have analyzed the text and watched videos of other actress’s performances. However, I make her my own by using my voice and my true emotions to make her the Wicked Witch of the West of our Wizard of Oz.
Because people now know the Wicked Witch more from Elphaba in Wicked, in which she's a more sympathetic character, does that change anything about performing the Wizard of Oz-version of her?
I have to admit Elphaba is a giant bucket list role for me. I have seen Wicked now eight times, on tour, in London, and on Broadway. I have read the book and I love the music. I most commonly hear people comparing me to the role because you are right that is what most audiences think of when they see the black hat and the green skin. I have always viewed the Wicked Witch of the West as misunderstood. Her sister is killed, her magic is stolen, she has the right to be upset. The natural human reaction would be to seek revenge. The creepy factor of flying monkeys and green skin just add to the evil villain within. I’m not saying the Wicked Witch was not a bad Witch—she enslaves a nation of Winkies and her sister enslaves the Munchkins, not a nice pair of sisters. In The Wizard of Oz it is not the sympathetic character that I play as much as the Witch seeking revenge and ultimate power. She is the witch to rule all kingdoms. An aspect of Elphaba that I do play with however is her sarcastic nature in Wicked. The Wicked Witch in the staged version of The Wizard of Oz is certainly written with a few sarcastic lines as well as jokes. So I do allow the influence of Elphaba, a scorned person with sarcastic moments. She is misunderstood, and she is the outcast with a very darkened heart. Elphaba can still find some human kindness and indeed falls in love which is something that is not even in my character’s lexicon.
Is there something that helped you unlock the character?
Something that helps me unlock my inner Wicked Witch is the Meisner technique and focus. When I hit the deck of a stage the crew and other actors know I am focused. I am the Wicked Witch when I hit the boards. Earlier in the process I used my physical posture, breath, and vocal work to move her into my body. The way I hold myself and walk has certainly helped me unlock the witch and put her into my bones. I have played a lot with levels of pitch, volume, and dynamics to enhance the words of the script. I have to keep it fresh for each audience.
Are villains more fun to play?
I think that villains are way more fun to play than nice girls. I love that I can enter the stage and have such a large impact. Without the Wicked Witch there wouldn’t be a story. Without the conflict there wouldn’t be the sitting on the edge of your seat tension that our minds crave. I love being the one that pushes the envelope and makes that tension happen. I think that playing the villain is so much fun because it is such a contrast to my normal personality. I am a living cartoon character. I think of myself as a silly gal that loves to make voices and jump around like a fool, so being able to play something so different than myself is such a blast. I have been told my whole life that I have a strong presence when I enter a room and that type of presence is usual one you see from a villain character. So I have turned that strength to my favor and in my thirties, I have found that those are not just the characters I am good at but also the character that I enjoy playing. A close second is a deep character role. I like when the children are afraid of me or the adults show a hesitancy with me in my role.
Will you get to see family and friends when touring in Texas? see family and friends when touring in Texas?
I am originally from Kensington, Connecticut. I was born and raised there and that is where my parents still live. I moved down to Austin in 2010 on my own. My brother and his family now live in Waco so that makes it nice to have family so close. My dearest friends live in Austin so it is a welcome homecoming to having friends in the audience every time we play a Texas city. My family has traveled all over the country to see me play at different venues. I think they like the mini-vacations. But my Texas friends are so supportive and come out every time we are in the state!
How long has this tour been going/how long will it run? Ever been on tour before, and how do you like being on the road?
I have been with the tour since the beginning. We started rehearsal Oct. 2, 2017, and toured until the end of May 2018. Then we played at the Dutch Apple Dinner Theater over the summer. Our new cast started rehearsals Sept. 16, 2018, and we will tour on this current schedule until late March 2019. As of Aug. 4, 2018, I have performed the show 228 times on tour, and 270 times in my career.
This is my first national tour, and I am in love with tour life. I have seen so many interesting parts of the country, so much beautiful scenery. I would love to keep touring nationally and internationally. You have to work differently when you play both large and small cities. One of the cities that we performed in was on an ice arena. These small towns might never see a musical that comes through, but we go there and children and adults get to see live theater and without us they might never have that opportunity. It’s a thrill both performing in 6,000-seat houses and 1,500-seat houses. My cast and crew are a family. I have grandiose goals of where I want to go with my career but I hope most of all that which encompasses performing in more national and international tour musicals.
Anything else to add?
No matter how young, how old, race or gender, no matter if one is hearing or deaf, disabled or with special needs, The Wizard of Oz is a story for all and I hope we can share it with everyone. Theater should be experienced by all and I am so grateful for the opportunity to tell this classic tale to everyone. I remember watching it with my family growing up and I know so many others have that fond memory as well. I hope we can bring that same warm feeling to families all over the country. And of course, I hope to impart a good dose of Wicked Witch fear!