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Thrill of the Fright: A feature article on Globe’s Wicked Witch, Beth Graham

November 6, 2012

Beth Graham plays the Wicked Witch of the West in Globe Theatre’s The Wizard of Oz

Beth Graham’s introduction to the Wicked Witch of the West made an impression that was immediate and lasting, and in some ways even profound. “She scared the hell out of me,” says Graham, who was 10 years old when she saw Margaret Hamilton perform the role in the MGM film The Wizard of Oz.

That, of course, was the immediate impression. What is lasting is that, now in her adulthood, Graham still feels what she calls the “thrill of the fright.” As for the profound, well, that’s where it gets a bit tricky, in the sense that questions arose that Graham is presently exploring in recreating the iconic character for the Globe production.

“Who is this witch? What’s she all about? Why is she so angry?” Graham says. “She’s an outsider. She is marginalized. She is hungry for power.”

After a pause, Graham adds: “The challenge in building this character, for me, at least, is thinking through where the impulses are coming from. I’ve been doing that since the day rehearsals started.”

One more thing, and this might surprise you, because it isn’t what springs to mind when you think about the Wicked Witch. “There is also a sense of humour to the character, and she’s self-deprecating when life isn’t going her way,” Graham says. “She’s obsessed with the Ruby Slippers as the source of power, and she’s over the top when she loses it.”

Over the top can be a mixed blessing. If you’re familiar with the work of Joey Tremblay, however, there’s the reassuring thought he can be trusted. As director of this production, Tremblay is encouraging performers to reach down deep, grasp the inner clown, and bring it to the surface boldly. “He makes it all a game, from the start,” Graham says. “He’s a joy to work with.”

The character that you will see from Graham is minus the “green skin” that distinguishes the Wicked Witch in the film, and in a sense, a veneer of paint has been stripped from the production itself, in part by design, in part out of necessity. There is little in the way of special effects, and the show will make great demands of both the performers and the audiences in terms of unleashing the imagination.

In this show, the Wicked Witch does not “fly.” You’ll know she is in the air by the reactions of other characters, most notably the Munchkins. As Graham so colourfully phrases it, the witch and the Flying Monkeys “will be running down the aisles and going ta-da!”

Rest assured that Tremblay will use theatre in-the-round to every possible advantage; he knows how to turn the space itself into a special effect. And the proximity of performers to audience has the potential to create a magic of its own. “I love it! We’re coming from all sides and from every angle. And we’re watching people watch the play, which is great when you’re telling a story,” Graham says. “We can see, and hear, and feel their reactions.”

Graham’s previous appearance at the Globe was in the winter of 2005. The play was called Strawberries In January, and it, too, was directed by Tremblay, whom she had first encountered several years earlier when she was launching her professional career and he was co-artistic director (with Jonathan Christenson) of the Catalyst Theatre in Edmonton.

Edmonton remains home base for Graham, who was born and raised in a farming community near Cochrane, to the south. When it came time to make a decision concerning post-secondary education, she chose the University of Alberta, because Edmonton “isn’t too far away from home, but a little bit far away from home,” a sentiment that requires no elaboration.

Initially, Graham was there to study English literature, with a view to doing some creative writing, perhaps. “I kind of discovered theatre along the way,” she says. “I saw plays, not only in the city, but on campus, and it was kind of like, ‘Ah, there’s a program here.’ Before I knew it, I had chosen theatre as a career. It seemed to offer the greatest possibility for self-fulfilment. Maybe it was just innocence, too, and not realizing it was a risk.”

While it may offer the greatest possibility for self-fulfilment, theatre doesn’t necessarily offer the greatest possibility of putting clothes on your back, food on your table, and a roof over your head. Parents being parents, this is the sort of thing that cause concern. “I’m sure they were a bit worried under the facade of encouragement,” Graham says with a smile. “But I didn’t know what I was getting into, either.”

Since graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Graham has worked across the country “sporadically.” She has also worked in bookstores and restaurants, and written countless grant applications. Most significantly, she has authored a play called The Drowning Girls, with collaborators Daniela Vlaskalic and Charlie Tomlinson, a university professor whose specialty is collective creations.

The story tells of three young brides, or at least their ghosts, who emerge from their baths and share accounts of a romantic but mysterious suitor. The play was created as a two-hander in 1999 for the Edmonton Fringe Festival, and later reworked, with a third character added, in 2008 for Alberta Theatre Projects. It was then toured for two years “on and off” across Canada.

“Every audience was different, and taught us something different about the play,” Graham says. “It was awesome! It was really a great experience to go to the various cities and perform it. It was exciting to bring something we ourselves had created. Other people are doing it now.”

Interestingly, and strictly by coincidence, in the course of researching their play, Graham and Vlaskalic discovered the true-life story of one George Joseph Smith, the Edwardian bigamist and serial killer who was convicted in 1915 and subsequently hanged for the causing the deaths of three women, in a case that became known as the Brides in the Baths Murders. “We had already started writing the play. That was a coincidence,” Graham says. “But it certainly added a great deal.”

Graham continues to write with Vlaskalic, and she is also doing a solo project with the Playwrights’ Forum at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton.

“Mostly, I write so I’m not waiting for the phone to ring,” Graham says. “Writing keeps me balanced. It keeps my creative juices flowing. Waiting is difficult. Daniela and I coped with it by writing The Drowning Girls. There’s an empowerment in doing your own thing.”

There is empowerment in directing, as well, but that is one aspect of theatre Graham does not intend to embrace in the foreseeable future. “I leave that to others,” she says. “It’s a completely different skill set, and I don’t know that I have it. I’m not interested in it, not at this point, anyway.

“It would have to be a very collaborative effort,” she adds. “I’m great at pitching in ideas. Making the decisions, not so much.”

Next spring, Graham will be performing in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad at the Citadel. The month-long run will be preceded by a month of classes at the Banff Centre. “I’m going back to the basics, and I’m really looking forward to it,” she says, meaning such things as text work, voice, and movement.

The immediate focus, of course, is on the Wicked Witch of the West and The Wizard of Oz. “There’s tons of joy to it,” Graham says. “We’re striving for a story well-told.”

The Wizard of Oz runs from November 15 – December 30, 2012. Visit the Globe Theatre website for more details, cast information, and to purchase tickets.

Nick Miliokas is a freelance writer and editor based in Regina. You can reach him by email at rozenstern@rocketmail.com.

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