Valley Stream South High School’s recent production of “The Wizard of Oz” was a first and a last for Dr. Thomas Zatorski. It was his first time ever directing the play based on the popular 1939 film, but it was the last play at South to be done on his watch.
Zatorski, who has been a music teacher at the school for 27 years, will be retiring in June. Since coming to South in 1986, Zatorski has directed about 40 plays, though he admits he has lost count of exact total. He has mostly heralded over musicals, but has also directed a few dramas and comedies in that time.
Among the plays Zatorski has directed more than once are “Anything Goes,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Oklahoma” and “Grease.” But “Wizard of Oz” was a new one for him to direct, and he said he chose the play at the urging of the students.
“This show is different,” he said of the production which graced the South High stage April 5-6. “It’s not really a musical, it’s an adaptation of a movie. Film and stage are two different art forms. The same rules don’t apply.”
Zatorski also made only his second stage appearance in the “Wizard of Oz.” He played Nikko, one of the Wicked Witch of the West’s flying monkeys. After the actor initially chosen for the role wasn’t able to play the part, the cast encouraged Zatorski to take it on himself.
For a brief period in the second act, Zatorski left the familiar confines of the pit and got up on stage in full monkey costume. It was only his second cameo — he once played President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a production of “Annie.”
The pit is where Zatorski is most comfortable. An organist by trade, he has played the piano for the shows.
Zatorski said he doesn’t have a favorite show, but there have been some memorable moments over the past 27 years. For a production of “Anything Goes,” he got the whole cast to do a tap dance. In “Grease,” a real car was used on stage.
“Every show is just very unique,” he said, adding that each takes on a life of its own in the months of rehearsal leading up to opening night. “Every show has its positives to it.”
He described his directing style as “utilitarian.” Zatorski said he works to get the job done and isn’t afraid to shy away from any task, whether it is building the sets or finding the right props.
Zatorski also had a no cut policy, so every student who auditioned would be guaranteed at least some role in the play.
South’s actors have high praise for Zatorski. “He’s the patriarch of this whole big family that becomes a show,” said senior Christina Casillo, who played the Scarecrow in the most recent play.
Casillo, who has starred in five plays since ninth grade, said despite tremendous pressure leading up to a show, Zatorski keeps calm and never breaks a sweat.
Trevor Ramcharitar, who played the Emerald City guard, said the students affectionately call him “Z.” Aimee Kaplan has been in six plays under Zatorski’s tutelage. “He’s become more than a teacher,” said Kaplan, who played the Wicked Witch. “He’s become one of my best friends.”
Several alumni attended the April 6 to show their appreciation for their former director and chorus teacher.
Zatorski said he isn’t sure what is next after retirement. He will also be stepping down from his summer gig as the organist in Valley Stream’s weekly Community Band concerts. He is considering doing some work with community theater, possibly playing in the pit.
First, he said, it is time for a break. But that doesn’t mean he won’t miss the atmosphere of rehearsals, the interaction with the students or the chance to shape budding actors.
Zatorski said putting on a play is unlike any other experience that students get in school. “It’s not a test,” he said. “The show has to go on. I really think it’s education at it’s finest.”