The theater at Santa Fe Performing Arts plays host to SFPA's City Different Players and Teen Ensemble this week and next for a production of L Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz. Students from Santa Fe have worked after school for weeks to put the play together. It's a little different than common perceptions of the show—it's not a musical, and here and there things are dropped or added from the motion picture plot we're most familiar with—but all the staples are there, up to and including Toto and a tornado.

Tara Khozein (who is basically everywhere in Santa Fe—we talked about her collaboration for Syrian refugees earlier this year, and she appears the next two weekends in Theater Grottesco's Pie at the Adobe Rose Theatre) directs, and it's a balancing act between teaching the kids what is expected of them in a play, and nurturing a love of theater that goes beyond just wanting to be the center of attention.

The actors range in age from 6 to 12, and from first-timers to seasoned veterans (well, as seasoned as you can be at 12). "The kids that we have that are the youngest are the ones that have the biggest opinions and who are really the ones who are most guilty of directing from within," Khozein says. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, though; she continues: "I'm so much a proponent of actors not just being actors, but thinking as directors and thinking as producers, and learning about the whole picture. … I want to foster that. It's not something I want to squash. … I'm not the kind of teacher or director that has such a clear creative vision that the vision excludes ideas from the people involved."

The gang's all here in The Wizard of Oz at SFPA.
The gang's all here in The Wizard of Oz at SFPA. / Charlotte Jusinski

The decision to present the non-musical version of the play, Khozein says, allows more time for the mechanics of stage acting. Point your toes toward the audience, project, don't block anyone else, smile—stuff like that. It's both a classroom and a rehearsal space.

During notes after a dress rehearsal, Khozein delicately tells the kids what they need to work on, but doesn't cross the line into coddling. She says to one actor, "In that scene, you're anticipating—that means you're getting excited too early." When another actor doesn't particularly like the note they were given, and begins to say where Khozein is mistaken, Khozein kindly but firmly interrupts: "I'm giving you a note. If you'd like to talk to me more about it, we can do that after." She then smiles genuinely.

And these actors really do act quite professionally, all things considered. While Khozein and the stage crew try to wrangle errant set pieces, the actors sit quietly and wait for action to resume. It's very easy to start chatting noisily at these kinds of intervals, and these students are excellent at avoiding the impulse. At a dress rehearsal, the kids are no longer allowed to call for line—but, as happens to actors of all ages, lines still get forgotten, though much less often here than one might expect. When a student gets that blank look on their face and, wide-eyed, looks to their castmates for help, the other kids mumble something under their breath. The stunned actor instantly regains composure and belts out their scripted line. Day saved.

If you're looking for seasoned pros, you don't need to look much further than a couple of the leads here. Emma M, who plays Dorothy, makes her debut at SFPA, but rattles off an impressive list of shows she's done with other companies: "Aladdin, Mary Poppins, Seussical, Schoolhouse Rock, Peter Pan, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Jungle Book," she lists, counting on her hand as she goes. While she has a ton of lines, all of which she seems to have memorized perfectly, she says the hardest part about Dorothy is playing younger. The character of Dorothy is 8 in the book, and Emma is 12, and she says that's a little awkward. But when it comes to the benefits of the show, the confidence it instills is awesome. "There's not an incredible amount of people here," she says, "so there's no people I need to impress. But I feel like I could if I needed to."

Opposite Emma is Gardner Yadzinski, a sixth grader at Santa Fe School for the Arts and Sciences, whom Santa Feans might know best as Lucius from Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return. Gardner is obviously very smart in real life, but this role as the Scarecrow allows him to let loose. "I really like it," he says of his role. "I get to be stupid, and I really enjoy that. I get to be stupid whenever I want to, but here, I just feel more secure being stupid because I have a role that requires it."

He betrays his intelligence when asked the hardest part of his role, which he says is "memorizing all the blocking and figuring out ways to play with it so it doesn't seem monotonous and boring." Yeah—that's totally a problem that many adults don't know how to solve, so kudos.

So, while the audiences at kids' shows are sometimes full of the family members of those involved, we'd absolutely advocate that everyone take an evening or an afternoon to appreciate the company's hard work. There's something refreshing about the early stages of what could become a lifelong hobby or even career—the squeaky wheels on the set pieces, actors sometimes standing in front of each other by accident, the pure joy on the face of the actor who finally gets to say his or her favorite line in the show. It's infectious, t's exciting and Santa Fe shares in these kids' love of the arts.

The Wizard of Oz

7 pm Friday April 21; 2 pm Saturdays and Sundays, April 22-30. $8.
Santa Fe Performing Arts, 1050 Old Pecos Trail, 984-1370.