Creating Worlds – It All Began with Corn

Ashley Underwood

  • OnStage Oklahoma Columnist

A production of The Wizard of Oz is a pretty big undertaking for our small community theatre. It was one of our first ventures into having a children’s camp, and so we had something like a cast of 90, which is about 70 more than usual, and they were all children. It was an amazing time, an amazing experience. I am slightly afraid of children, especially when they come in a herd, but we had a stellar group of people and a director that was able to corral the masses and make it into one heck of a show. 

I was the light operator for that production, but I was also helping on the set. It was the first time I had really jumped into the world of the set crew, and I knew I was a little out of my depth. My artist mentor, Christy, was the main set artist for this production, and one night it was me, Christy, and her daughter working on various set projects. They were creating a giant mural of a forest on one end of the stage, and Christy asked me, “Do you think you can handle painting the corn-field?” 

Cue the classic “deer in headlights” maneuver.  

I had done some small painting before, nothing overly complicated, but I had never tackled a mural that was about eight feet tall and fifteen feet wide. I cracked my ‘deer is about to die’ stare long enough to switch to my ‘boy going through puberty impression,’ 
“Sure,” I squeaked. “I can do the corn.” 

I did the corn. It was art. It was my art. Though I admit I had never aspired to paint a giant corn-field, I was inspired. I had grown up looking at those beautiful green fields, and I was determined to make it the best I could. And when I stepped back from it the last time to see what it looked like, I could have done back-flips, because damn it all it looked like a corn field! 

No. I would probably break my neck doing back-flips. But I did do a cheerleader kick. 

Fast forward to our Spring musical, Into the Woods. Christy was once again the primary set artist with me as her protégé. For the most part, I was working on building Milky White (I’ll have to write my love/hate story about her some other time), but Christy asked me to paint Cinderella’s castle. This time, I tackled the project with gusto, and learned so much about perspective and how shapes and color factor into the overall outlook of the painting from 20 feet away. Distance and light are so important to the actual appearance of the mural. I loved that painting, and cried a little when we painted over it. 

That has been the hardest lesson to take, I think. You spend hours and hours on these pieces of art, and strike comes along and a layer of black is slapped on top. The memory and the achievement is what is important, rather than the actual product. I can never thank Christy enough for her faith in me, but also her teaching me that I am capable of doing great things. If you had told me four years ago that I would be painting London streets in a giant mural for our production of Sweeney Todd, I would have laughed and told you that my grandmother had all of the painting talent in our family. Theatre helped me realize that I am not only a musician, I am an artist. I am a painter, and I never knew it before Christy asked me to paint some corn. 

Luckily, I was able to salvage a piece of that corn mural, and it is hanging in my house. It’s a great reminder and inspiration. Don’t say you can’t do something if you’ve never tried it before. With some motivation, determination, and a wonderful teacher, you too can create worlds with a paintbrush. 

Photo: Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'The Wizard of Oz/ Alan Davidson