At a recent rehearsal for the Palo Alto Players' production of "The Wizard of Oz," cast members were practicing the choreography for a lesser-known song from the musical: "Jitterbug." Under the spell of the Wicked Witch of the West, the characters are forced to dance in a fast-paced, swing dance style — maniacally and in unison.
At stage right, in the front row of performers, Noelle Wilder is executing the rigorous choreography precisely but also in a floppy, loose way, instantly recognizable for both the boneless physical comedy and easygoing nature of their character, Scarecrow.
"I think Scarecrow is just a fun character who tries their best, who's just a very clumsy person. But their friends don't care. You know, they just kind of keep going. I feel like I'm that friend in every friend group I'm in. I'm the one who's always trying and I'm very clumsy. But my friends don't care. They still love me all the same," Wilder said in an interview via an American Sign Language interpreter.
Wilder is the first Deaf actor to perform in a Palo Alto Players production. Wilder is portraying Scarecrow in American Sign Language, as another cast member, Lauren D'Ambrosio, voices the character.
Wilder, who uses they/them pronouns, came to the stage in part through dance — they have been dancing since the age of 3, when they were enrolled in dance classes and fell in love with it pretty quickly, beginning with ballet, and then going on to learn tap, jazz, contemporary, hip-hop and Afro-Caribbean styles. They were recently seen in the title role in "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat" at Stage 1 Theatre and they have choreographed productions for Stage 1 and for the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival and Deaf After Dark.
Wilder dances to the vibrations they feel in the rhythm of the music.
"I feel and listen to the music, I tend to go toward the speaker and feel it first and then go on stage and dance or perform," they said.
They also ice skate, another love discovered at a young age, when a friend invited them to join them at an ice skating class. Skating is something they still do competitively — in the past year, with San Francisco Theatre on Ice, Wilder took part in national and international competitions.
Both dancing and ice skating have some things in common with their work on the stage.
"Well, with dance, it's all on the stage, just like in theater. By nature, we're acting as well. I'm just kind of a natural actor, because you know, it's all in the face while we're dancing. We have to show our emotions while we're dancing. And then on the ice, it's the exact same thing except on ice instead of on land. So there's a lot of similar artistic technique, technical parts of both," they said.
Wilder works as a preschool teacher at California School for the Deaf, and they credit their wiggly young students with inspiring some of Scarecrow's signature moves.
"That's been an ongoing joke since we started rehearsal, because every time (director Stacey Reed) tells me to flop, (I think) 'okay, so just like my preschool students,' so I just copy their movements and kind of apply that to myself," they said with a laugh.
The process of bringing a bilingual English-ASL role to the stage has been evolving during rehearsals, Wilder said. Songs tend to be easier for them to rehearse because they can memorize the tempo on their own time.
"With the lines, it's a little more complex, because with staging, wherever we're placed, sometimes we realize afterward, 'Oh, I can't see Lauren,' or I repeatedly miss the line because I don't have access and I'm not aware of my cue. So for example, if someone else is talking and they're set across the stage where they're not looking at me, I don't know until they're finished with their line — I don't know if it's my turn. So we've had to move around or restage some scenes several times, and we're still doing the same thing. I would say when we get on the actual stage, we're probably going to have to restage it even more. It's just part of the process," they said.
Wilder said they hope that people will come away from the production with a better understanding of the importance of making theater accessible for everyone, on and off the stage.
"I'm hoping people will open their minds further to think about how they can make theater more accommodating and accessible for everyone, and not just providing interpreting for one day and that's it. If you have a Deaf actor, cast them, find out how we can best provide that accommodation for them — and what that would look like not just for the Deaf actor, but also for other minority groups on how we can best provide access and accommodations for everybody, and not just the bare minimum," they said.
The Wizard of Oz plays Nov. 3-19 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. The company offers ASL-interpreted performances Nov. 12 and 18 at 2 p.m., Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m. On Nov. 11, 2 p.m. the company offers a "relaxed" performance, in partnership with the Magical Bridge Foundation. Tickets are $20-$60. paplayers.org.