At just 10 years old, Emily Staples knows what it takes to get into character. To prepare for her upcoming role of Toto in Andria Theatre's production of "Wizard of Oz," Staples researched the body language of dogs.

The Alexandria fifth-grader wanted to be as much of a dog as she possibly could be. She even got a book on dog body language, learning that when dogs are happy, they tend to pant a lot and have a slight "smile."

Staples, who is in her fifth production at the Andria Theatre, said she spends a lot of her time at home practicing for her roles, whether they are singing, dancing, or in the case of Toto, barking.

"When I would practice singing for other shows, after a while my parents would ask me to quit singing," said the daughter of Beth and Ben Staples. "Now they tell me, 'Please stop barking.' "

She described Toto as a mysterious dog, a tough dog and a dog who stands up for everyone.

As for how she got into acting, Staples said her friend, Sailor Peterson, was in a show at the Andria Theatre and she got the chance to watch her.

"She inspired me," Staples said. "I tried out for a play and it was a lot of fun, and you get to show all your emotions."

Professionalism

Alexandria Area High School senior Lauren Russell, who has been in roughly 15 plays - 10 at the Andria Theatre - is one of six actors representing the Yellow Brick Road. It is a new role for her in that she is mostly dancing or standing in formation. She asked that playgoers not be too quick to judge having people play the role of a road.

"It's a cool artistic choice and it puts a different spin on the story," she said.

Russell said the role of the Yellow Brick Road, just like in the movie, represents something that leads people to where they need to go.

"It's about people helping you and and leading you to your destination," the 17-year-old said.

After high school, Russell hopes to continue acting in either community theatre or at college.

Intricacy of a set

From the conception of a set to it fully being built takes a "solid three weeks," said the play's producer, Scott Giannone, but it all depends on the intricacy of the set.

For the "Wizard of Oz," he said, director Ann Hermes came up with the concept of having moving storyboards on tracks to depict scenes. Two murals, about 15 feet high and 7 feet wide, are pulled from a box on the left and a box on the right and, when put together, create a large scene in the middle of the two boxes. Numerous murals are used throughout the show.

Hermes relayed her vision for the storyboards to artist Ahndree Brown, who hand-painted each of the murals.

"Ahndree is a very talented artist," Giannone said.

In addition, the concept had to be relayed to set designer Regan Peterson, who then built the frames and the tracks and wrapped the canvas murals. Peterson, who was a student of Andria Theatre's Student Theatre Project, assembled it into one large working piece. He is planning on going to college for theater set design, Giannone said.

All sets used for productions at Andria Theatre are custom-built, he said.

From the director

Because the movie version of "Wizard of Oz" is so well-known, especially within certain age groups, Hermes said the challenge was to present the characters of this version in a little different light.

"Dorothy is no fading violet; the word we've used to describe her in rehearsals is plucky," said Hermes. "She runs away from home, she finds herself in a foreign land where she interacts with two witches, a talking scarecrow and a tin man, she slaps a lion, she stands up to a wizard, and does everything in her power to persevere and win the day!"

While the dialogue sometimes dictates what the actions on stage will be, Hermes said they have found nuances to give the production a fresh approach to the story. A big change, she said, is having actors portray "characters" that are typically not done by actors.

"You'll have fun watching this unfold," she said.

The performance has a large cast, which Hermes said requires a different level of organization.

"It's important to not have much down time for the actors," she said. "This cast is made up of people from ages 9 and older. Keeping all the age groups engaged in the production process is a challenge and a thrill. The cast has come together in amazing ways."

She said the Munchkins, Winkies and other characters not typically performed by actors such as the Ozians, the Crows and the Apple Trees, are often off rehearsing within their groups to be the best and most precise they can be.

She said the 18 different scene changes provide many ways for the actors to be engage, and it was so much fun to brainstorm ideas for them with the set designer, stage manager and the scenic artist.

"Actors are busy both backstage and onstage," Hermes said. "And it has been gratifying to see so many 'moving parts' work seamlessly with special effects, sound and lights."

Hermes, who is also the theater's executive director, has been a part of many plays over the years. She not only directs, but acts, and finds it difficult to compare the two.

"To choose between acting and directing is like choosing between a trip to Italy and Portugal. Each choice has its own allure," she said. "I cut my teeth on theater with acting. I've honed theater through directing. They are both very fulfilling, but directing does have the edge."

If you go

WHAT: Wizard of Oz

WHEN: Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 11-13 and 18-20, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 14 and 21, at 2 p.m.

WHERE: Andria Theatre, 618 Broadway St., Alexandria

TICKETS: Go to www.andriatheatre.org or call the box office at 320-762-8300.

Cast

Dorothy - Kami Kaderlik

Aunt Em - Trini Spanswick

Uncle Henry - Nick Segaar

Hickory (Tin Man) - Kip Sundlee

Zeke (Lion) - Dave Christman

Hunk (Scarecrow) - Joe Korkowski

Miss Gulch (Wicked Witch) - Lindsey Ryding

Professor Marvel (The Great and Powerful Oz) - Samuel Paradee

Toto - Emily Staples

Yellow Brick Road - Irene McDaniels, Myra Nelson, Mya Santelman, Jordan Rymer, Lauren Russell and Hannah Lynn Rinicker

Nikko - Mahri Kolar

Glinda - Betty Larson Butcher

Munchkin Mayor - Meagan Lindberg

Munchkin Barrister - Roxanne Sweetwater

Munchkin Council Members - Dillon Bock and Sailor Peterson

Munchkin Coroner - Abby Faber

Three Tots (Lullaby League) - Sammi Swensrud, Lily Eken and Madelyn Faber

Three Tough Munchkins - Niklas Cook and Kylee Dummer

Munchkin Chorus - Amelia (Mia) Meier, Abigail Schmitz, Lauren Heseltine and Liberty Knudsen

Crows - Lily Heidelberger, Sophia Wray and Olivia Aker

Apple Trees - Madeline Dudley, Allie Randazzo and Parker Zwach

Beauticians/Female Chorus - Lauren Russell, Allie Trombley, Kathryn Tomoson, Allie Randazzo, Sophia Korynta, Eden Phillips, Leah Zenner, Teryn Jaworski and Malorie Raether

Maintenance Men/Male Chorus/Winkies - Logan Lipke, Nicholas Zabroski, Brandon Ruffcorn, Ben Cook, Addison Randazzo, Jonah Heidelberger, Scott Giannone and Aiden Nelson