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The Joys of Playing Glinda The Good Witch of the North: A Feature on Tess Degenstein

December 17, 2012

In The Wizard of Oz the Good Witch of the North exists for one reason and one reason alone. Her purpose is to get Dorothy from Kansas to Emerald City and back again. (That’s why Glinda comes equipped with a magic wand.)

On the surface it might not seem like much of a role. But in the hands of a talented performer it is a reminder that every role, no matter how large or small, is what the actor makes of it.

TessDTess Degenstein’s inspired work in the Globe Theatre production is impressive and memorable because she gives us more from Glinda than we have any right to expect.

This is a credit not only to Degenstein but also to director Joey Tremblay, whose idea it was to make “toys” the operative word in the Globe show and to present the Good Witch as a bobblehead doll, or something resembling it.

“It’s a great jumping off point,” Degenstein says. “Joey was mining for comedy. He told all of us to be big and have fun.”

Indeed, Degenstein is having so much fun that curtain couldn’t possibly arrive a second too soon. “By three-thirty or four o’clock, I can’t wait to see everyone,” she says. “I’m always blurting out how much of a joy it is to be onstage with everyone.”

Degenstein had not done a family show until now. Having children in the audience, she says, “makes all the difference in the world. You kind of have to go into kid brain. They bring, literally, a childlike sense of joy. It has also reinforced the importance of storytelling.”

It had also been years since Degenstein last sang on the stage. “Surprise, surprise it’s been a total joy,” she says in a tone of voice that suggests it isn’t much of a surprise at all, because everything associated with this production has been a joy to cast and crew.

Understandably there was some apprehension initially. “I thought, what’s going to happen the first day when they ask me to sing?” says Degenstein, who, in addition to the role of Glinda, contributes numerous other things, specifically a Girl in Kansas, a Citizen of Emerald City, a Winkie, and (to ensure that she is completely exhausted by the end of the show) a Jitterbug Dancer as well.

Musical director Allen Cole eased the anxieties of singing again, and choreographer Dayna Tekatch made it possible to step smoothly into and out of another largely foreign territory. Ryan Reid, Degenstein’s partner in real life, who is currently appearing in Warhorse in Toronto, told her: “Dayna is going to make you feel like a dancer.”

Of course, having worked under his direction in the past, Degenstein was completely comfortable with Tremblay. She participated in the first two of his Fusion projects in the Sandbox Series as a high school student at LeBoldus, and most recently appeared in The Alice Nocturne on the Main Stage.

“It was a very important start,” Degenstein says of the Fusion projects. “It opened my mind to thinking about theatre in a new way.”

Back then, which is to say 2006, when she was 18 years old and about to make the leap from high school to university, Degenstein was considering the study of English literature with a view to teaching it someday. But, would it hurt to first satisfy her curiosity about, well, you know, theatre? “I told myself I would audition for one school,” she says with a laugh. “Just one school.”

That one school turned out to be the University of Alberta in Edmonton, from which Degenstein now holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

Since graduating, Degenstein has worked in television and film, and also on the web, as a core cast member of the series Space Janitors. But, “I’m a theatre person,” she says, “I keep coming back to the magic of live theatre.”

Through the magic of The Wizard of Oz, Degenstein has come home, “in a lot of ways, actually,” albeit temporarily. She will be whisked back again to Toronto when the Globe production closes, to prepare for her next project, the Donald Margulies play Time Stands Still, at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton.

The bottom line is this: She is following her heart, and also her mantra. “A happy Tess is a creating Tess,” she says, and these days she must be very happy indeed.

The Wizard of Oz runs from November 15 – January 3, 2013. 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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