Remarkably it will be Ella O’Keeffe seventh show with Chichester Festival Youth Theatre when she takes to the stage this Christmas as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
Ella, aged 16, who will be alternating in the role with Polly Maltby (17), started with 101 Dalmatians, continued with Running Wild, Peter Pan, Grimm Tales and Beauty and the Beast and also appeared in Sleeping Beauty on the main-house stage last year. Now she steps up as Dorothy. As she says, it’s clearly a role which will have been seen around the world many millions of times – which of course creates plenty of expectations.
“But I think it is really all about finding your own unique way of interpreting the character. We have been encouraged to look at her more for the independent, strong-willed character within Dorothy.
“We have been focusing on trying to find that, and I think it can get a bit overlooked. You can slip into thinking that it is all a bit of a cheesy musical, but I think there is a depth there which is genuine, that she is a girl that is struggling at home and really wants a new start. Yes, I think she is unhappy at the start. She has not got the best life in Kansas. There are no other children to interact with. She wants people to understand her more. She wants her aunty and uncle to listen to her more.
“But it is a bit of a case of be careful what you wish for. She wants a more extravagant life style, but as much as she hasn’t got what she wants, she has actually got more than she thinks she has. She doesn’t actually realise how much she is loved by the people around her. She is almost blind to it, I think.”
L Frank Baum’s classic will be on Chichester’s main-house stage, running from December 14-29, with a recommended age of seven. It will be directed by Lucy Betts in the year which sees the 80th anniversary of the release of the landmark Judy Garland film. The CFT are promising a faithful adaptation of Baum’s classic novel in a version which was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and features all the songs from the 1939 movie, including Over the Rainbow, If I Only Had a Brain and We’re Off To See The Wizard.
For Ella, it has been hugely helpful to discuss the role with Polly with whom she is sharing it: “We have talked about it all along the way. We meet up before each rehearsal to practise lines, and we have done things where we talk about the intention before each scene, and it has really helped to feed off each other. There is no stealing of idea. It is all about sharing ideas.
“We both attend all rehearsals. When we were doing the blocking, we would both do the scenes and then we would take turns to do certain scenes. It is really great to see each other and maybe see certain characteristics that we should think about more.”
Ella is currently studying musical theatre at Chichester College: “As much as I have done musical theatre before, I have never really done it in depth before. This is a really great opportunity to learn as much as I can, and then I can start to decide what I want to do, whether I want to become an apprentice at the CFT or whether I can to carry on with acting. I am undecided at the moment.”
But she knows that the great Wizard of Oz experience, along with all the other shows she has done, will put her in the best position when it comes to making that decision.