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Wiz-in-a-Box! Part 3

In the past two "Fun Facts & Helpful Hints" articles, I've been writing about non-pyrotechnic solutions for effects in The Wizard of Oz. In this week's article (I promise: the last one for a while about this show) I'd like to look at some of the pyrotechnic effects that can be used for this show. I realize that not everyone is willing or able to use pyro in their productions but I hope this will be helpful to those of you who are.

First, a few words on the subject of safety in this show. The Wizard of Oz is a big show -- even small productions tend to have casts of 30 or more. It's all those Munchkins, if you ask me. Since there is often a crowd on stage, the pyrotechnician needs to be extra careful when placing his effects. The technician who fires the effect must have a clear line of sight from his offstage position to the effect. If anything (a piece of scenery, a prop or an actor) blocks his view, he should abort that effect. The reason for this is simple, with so many people on stage it's possible that an actor might be standing dangerously close to an effect, putting him in danger of injury when it goes off.

In addition to keeping a clear line-of-sight to the effect, make sure that the effect is placed out of the path of any moving scenery or actors. If an effect is jostled and ends up even a foot or two away from its starting point, there's a risk that it could cause injury or start a fire.

Now that we've considered the safety concerns for the show, let's talk about some specific effects using pyro. The first pyrotechnic effects that directors think of for this show are the appearances and disappearances of the Wicked Witch. In the movie, she appears in a dramatic burst of smoke. The best way to do this effect is to use a pre-packaged piece of pyro called a Theatrical Flash.  This device, when activated, creates a nice flash with a large puff of smoke.  Place it a few feet in front of a sliding panel in the set. When the unit is fired, it will create a flash of light and an instantaneous cloud of white smoke. A stagehand slides the panel and the actress leaps onto stage while the stagehand resets the panel.  These pyrotechnic items require the use of a Flash Pod and a Pyro Controller.  Also, State and/or Local licenses or permits may be required.

A note about colored smoke effects: while it is possible to create a cloud of colored smoke on stage, it's not possible to do it as an instant effect. The Pyroflash Smokes and our colored smoke cartridges take several seconds to produce a full-size cloud of colored smoke. If you absolutely must have a colored smoke effect, I recommend lighting the area of effect with a strong, colored spotlight. The white smoke will reflect back the color of the spot, appearing to be that color.

Due to the changes in technology, most productions use a "Pyro Simulator" like the Geyser RGB system.  This wonderful unit will create any color flash and/or flame effect you want - and it's completely safe!

The Ultra Flash Portal or the Ultra Color Volcano can also be used in scenes that take place in the Wizard's throne room.  Using smokeless shotgun powder (Green Dot), a wall or column of fire can be created. Remember, whether you're using pyro or not, the key to the Wizard's room is big, exaggerated effects to show that the Wizard is trying his best to impress Dorothy and her friends.

I wrote earlier that colored smoke powder is a poor choice for the appearances of the Wicked Witch. This is true, but there is one scene in the show in which colored smoke can be used quite effectively. Towards the end of Act 2, the witch corners Dorothy and her friends in the castle. In trying to protect Scarecrow from the Witch's fireball, Dorothy throws a bucket of water over the witch. It turns out that witches don't like water, because it causes her to melt into a puddle on the floor. This effect can be done in the same way as the appearances earlier in the show, or you can create your own disappearing trick. One method I've been told about sounds like it would work wonderfully.

You'll need two similar-looking costumes for the witch, one for most of the show and one "meltdown" costume. Build the meltdown costume with rigid, built-in shoulder pads (think football equipment) and a stuffed hat attached to the dress at the neck -- overall this dress should be a little big for the actress. Place the witch on a raised platform (24" or so) for her final scene. When she gets doused, have two actors hold her arms -- they can either be supporting or restraining her depending on how you want to play the scene. What they're actually holding onto is her sleeves, so that the actress can slip her arms out and duck down through the dress and out a convenient trap door in the platform. All that's left on stage is an empty dress, a pointy hat, and a broomstick. As soon as Dorothy douses the witch, ignite a flash portal filled with colored smoke powder. The colored smoke will add to the illusion, and help to hide the witch's escape.

Now that we've covered almost every effect you'll need for this show, it's our hope that you can approach your own production with confidence. We also hope that those readers who are working on other shows will still be able to make use of some of these suggestions in their own work. In the future, we hope to give more shows this sort of detailed attention and we'd love to hear what shows you'd like to see covered in this space. Drop us a line and let us know! 

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