By Kristi Casey Sanders

“When you need kids, call Bill Newberry,” says Theater of the Stars [TOTS] Producer Christopher B. Manos. Newberry has carved out a niche for himself as a children’s director, teaching young cast members how to sing, dance and hit their marks like professionals. This month, you can catch his handiwork in TOTS’ production of The Wizard of Oz , in which several Atlanta children play the munchkins of Oz. Encore Atlanta spoke to him about the challenges and joys of working with children.

How many children are in The Wizard of Oz ?

We have more than 50 kids. We held auditions in April at Atlantic Station at Dillard’s in the middle of the children’s section.

Do you think holding auditions in a shopping mall helps kids relax?

I have mixed feelings. My pros are that it seems to be a little less frightening than being on a stage in a theater, and it tends to create a more relaxed atmosphere, because they’re hanging around with other kids in a store. The negative is, we find sometimes the focus level is not there – you’ve got the parents right there and everyone’s watching. I say to the kids, “You need to pretend that nobody’s here.”

Who gets more upset during the cuts: the parents or the kids?

It’s half and half. In The Wizard of Oz auditions, we had a mother come up to us after her daughter had gotten cut and said, “Please, can she do it again? She was nervous.” And we said, “We can’t do that; we have to have an even playing field.” And she wouldn’t let up. Finally, the little girl said, “Mommy, it’s OK.” And, of course, I’ve had kids just cry uncontrollably after the auditions. I do workshops all over the country about the audition process for adults and kids, and I always say, “An audition is not an evaluation of your talent. Sometimes you get the role because you look like someone else, sometimes it’s because they like your look, sometimes it’s because you fit the costume. Never, ever think that because you don’t get a callback that you’re not talented.”

So what is it that you look for during auditions?

I cast a show based on potential: If I see somebody struggling with the dance, but they’re working hard at it, and I can tell they’re enthused about it, then I’ll take that person over somebody who’s got it all right, but has no energy. … We’re always looking for people with a comfort level on stage; body language tells so much to us. We look for maturity, in that they can handle themselves on stage. There is a lot of tension and a lot of pressure backstage, and you have to hit your mark at the right time.

What’s the rehearsal process like?

I have to go to Kansas City [where the show is being created] and take notes and learn the show, and then I’ll come back and teach what I learned to the kids. … Basically, they will be rehearsing scenes without adults for several days, and I believe it’s two days with them. We put our package together and meld it in with theirs. When the curtain goes up, we just keep our fingers crossed. Working with children, there are times you just don’t know what you are going to get.

What’s one of the funniest things you’ve seen happen?

On the national tour of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat last year in Washington, D.C., we got the kids’ chorus in late. During the first evening – they’re supposed to come in from both sides of the wings and surround the narrator, and then sit in front in four clusters – we got to the music cue, and they just stood there. They didn’t come out, and I’m stuck in the orchestra pit. Finally, the narrator started waving to them like, “It’s alright, come on out.” And they were, literally, deer in headlights. They couldn’t remember what to do. They were supposed to come and sit down at the front of the stage, and three did that. Three or four of them just wandered around wherever, and the rest of them just walked off the stage. But kids bounce back. Their chorus director was mortified, and I said, “Just bring them in early tomorrow.” She did, and the rest of the time, they were great.

What’s your favorite thing about working with children?

The joy of it is seeing these kids exploding with the excitement of it. You never know what this is going to lead to. Some kids I’ve worked with never do anything again and some end up on Broadway. The thrill for me is getting to see these kids enter a world they’ve never entered before. When you hear that one of your kids is now performing all over the country … it makes me feel good, because I might have had something to do with that.

The Wizard of Oz plays The Fox Theatre Aug. 4-11, 2007.