Phoenix Theatre’s current production of “Wizard of Oz,” running throughout the holiday season features the inestimable Toby Yatso as Scarecrow. Following yesterday’s intelligently witty performance, Yatso brushed aside his stuffing to visit with Examiner.
“Scarecrow is almost like a duckling that imprints on Dorothy,” says Yatso, who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin (not Kansas?), so likely knows of what he speaks. “The thing about Scarecrow is how lucky he is that a trusting, upbeat, open person like Dorothy is the one who finds him.”
And the thing about this iteration of “Oz” is how lucky it is to have Producing Artistic Director Michael Barnard calling the creative shots. In particular, the show is comprised of stunning tableaus befitting an American story so intrinsically woven into our cultural fabric. Like canvases hung on the living room wall, the image of bonding adventure that closes Act I or the haunting reds and blacks that drape the Wicked Witch’s lair create unforgettable visual images. …as do the rich fall colors and silhouettes of Scarecrow’s crow-infested cornfield.
Another stellar shot Phoenix Theatre and Barnard called, back in 2008, was to name Yatso the company’s first Artist in Residence. Since then, his life journey has included dozens of professional acting and directing opportunities. He’s not just a glowing ambassador for Phoenix Theatre, but a bright-eyed, soft-spoken advocate for all theatre artists in the Valley.
A “bizarre path,” is how Yatso, a card carrying member of Actors’ Equity Association, humbly describes the yellow brick road of his career. His keen musicality onstage is perhaps owing in part to his Master’s degree in musical performance from Arizona State University (ASU). On the bassoon.
The unassuming man who’s won AriZoni Awards for his acting says, “I’m a true product of Phoenix,” as he notes the lion’s share of his teaching and performing skills were honed right here in the Valley.
Though always attracted to acting, Yatso suggests his “gangly insecurity” regarding a post-high school growth spurt that shot him to an impressive 6 feet 5 inches made him self-conscious.
“I hid behind my instrument,” he says, earning his post-graduate degree in 2005 while he mustered courage. All the grad school while, he was auditioning and performing, testing the acting waters at ASU’s Lyric Opera Theatre. The day he got his music master’s diploma, he began a fully dedicated pursuit of his… theatre career.
In addition to the annual two-show contract at Phoenix Theatre that his devoted focus has earned him, he’s also part of the musical theatre faculty for ASU within the Herberger Institute of Arts and Design. His current ratio of acting to directing is around two or three to one.
“It’s a good formula for me; one informs the other,” he says of the balance between his on and off stage work. “It makes me clearer on things like timing, how we need to earn any pauses onstage….both comedic timing and pauses of the heart.”
And after a bit of a pause, his own heart seems to take voice while the distinction between Scarecrow’s life and his own blurs a little. As he suggests why he believes a tale like “Wizard of Oz” continues to stand the test of time, he could as easily be describing his real life professional and personal outlook.
“So much in everyone’s lives these days is messy and unclear that I think we sometimes crave a happy ending where all the loose ends get neatly tied up,” he ventures. “The charm in these characters is their pure, unadulterated friendship. They challenge each other, but don’t judge. The bond is there… sealed, unbreakable. You get to witness that, be a part of it.”
Both his empty-headed character’s existence and his own thoughtfully-pursued life, he believes, are blessed by the relationships that strengthen them. For instance, he’s not just thankful about family that flies cross country to see his work, he’s also beaming about his upcoming wedding on New Year’s Eve, just after “Oz” closes.
In Yatso’s mind, the show, as many times as we see it, doesn’t get old because “it’s never an exact replica… it’s more a kaleidoscope. Everyone comes at it with a little different lens of experience each time,” he hazards. “It’s like the story asks the question ‘How is the dream going to come alive this time?”
So when the image of Yatso suspended by a nail in the middle of a farm field without the brains to free himself appears onstage before the cast’s Oz odyssey begins, don’t necessarily assume he has thoughts of wanting to leave. And if Yatso and Phoenix Theatre put their heads together to make an attractive Artist in Residence pathway, why not more artists and more theatres across the Valley making bold versions of their own design?
“Havin’ a brain don’t make partin’ any easier,” says Scarecrow using his new cognitive gift to pinpoint the heart of the matter at the end of Phoenix Theatre’s “Wizard of Oz” production.
Thankfully, Phoenix Theatre is forging ways to use Yatso’s noggin to benefit all concerned while staying put. He’s a courageous, beating heart, puzzling new ways always to make theatre arts a viable Valley career… for himself and others. Rather than parting, he’s joining together with other performing artists to realize an Arizona arts dream, living right here the notion that ‘There’s no place like home.’