Out actor talks zany ‘Oz’

Doug Hara (as The Tinman), Andrew Betz (as The Scarecrow), Leigha Kato (as Dorothy), Jered McLenigan (as The Lion), Susannah Hughes (as Toto). Photo by Linda Johnson.

Andrew Betz began performing community theater in the South Jersey suburbs as a youngster. The passion he formed there set him on a course to become a professional actor. The out actor, who currently resides in New York, has appeared in several Philadelphia-area productions — many of them at Mt. Airy’s Quintessence Theatre. This holiday season, he plays The Scarecrow in an inventive new adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.”

PGN recently spoke with Betz about the challenges of presenting a new spin on a classic work. He also discussed his lifelong love of the performing arts, and what he enjoys most about working in Philly. Some responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.

“The Wizard of Oz” is such an iconic story for many people. How does this production approach the challenge of taking such well-known material and doing something fresh with it?

The text itself is closely based on the movie. It’s the licensed version of “The Wizard of Oz,” so you’ll be hearing the words you are going to hear anywhere else. But our director [Lee Cortopassi] was interested in pulling more of the original book back into the piece, as well as putting up the kind of trippy, wacky, goofy Oz that he was interested in seeing. So, we’ve built something that’s kind of zany and weird in places, and there are going to be some surprises. But we’ve landed in a place that’s very faithful to the movie.

As an actor, do you feel any trepidation about playing a legendary character like The Scarecrow?

Luckily, I have very little attachment and experience with “The Wizard of Oz” as a movie. That basically allowed me to approach this from square one. Also, I knew this production was going to be a departure, and we would be building it from the ground up on our own, so I didn’t feel any obligation to recreate anything. As a result, a lot of these iconic characters are similar in ways, but we are all playing around in different realms. When presented with the script in my audition, I was just kind of preparing it with the information I had at hand. This was a rural character, someone who doesn’t consider himself very bright, but who actually has a lot of the answers along the way. From those jumping-off points, I was able to make a lot of nuanced choices based on where my instincts were taking me.

What drew you to being a performer?

I’ve been performing since I was about 10. Actually, the second show I ever did was a production of “The Wizard of Oz” at a community theater in Haddonfield, New Jersey. I credit the Disney movies of the early 1990s with inspiring me to be a performer. “Beauty and the Beast” had me singing and dancing until the last minute before bedtime when it originally came out. I’ve been performing since I was really little, and I love music, dancing and playing pretend. At the end of the day, that’s what I’m still doing. There is also the social aspect that you’re almost always working with a group of people that you have a lot in common with. Even right now, I’m talking to you from lunch, where nine of us in the cast are eating and talking between shows. The more adult aspects of theater — the exchange of ideas, pushing boundaries, asking questions — have definitely helped keep me engaged and interested in the process of making art. But, originally, it just came from a place of fun.

What are your impressions of performing live theater in Philadelphia?

The theater that I’ve worked with most in Philadelphia is Quintessence. I worked with them in 2010 when they were just starting out and again in 2014. I’ve also worked at the Arden, and I’ve seen a lot of theater here. I’m from Haddon Heights, just over the bridge in Jersey, and I think Philly has a great theater community. There is a devoted audience base that is really hungry for theater, and the artists in Philadelphia are really supportive and loyal. What’s special about Quintessence is that it really feels like a local theater. The community is coming out to these shows. Being in Mt. Airy, they might not have such easy access to the stuff playing downtown. You can really tell that the community is really grateful to have this professional theater in Mt. Airy. It’s very special to be able to share these pieces — everything from the darkest American drama to the strangest Shakespeare to this wacky “Wizard of Oz.”

“The Wizard of Oz” continues through Jan. 5 at Quintessence Theatre in Mt. Airy. For tickets and information, please visit quintessencetheatre.org.