When Joseph VanZandt was 7 years old, a Hattiesburg Civic Light Opera production of The Wizard of Oz came to the Hub City.
At the urging of his mom – and dad, who was himself a veteran of community theater with HCLO – VanZandt tried out for one of the many roles for children in the play.
“So I did, and I took to it,” VanZandt said. “My dad played the scarecrow, and I was one of the Munchkins. And as they say, the rest is history.”
And what a rich history in theater it’s been for VanZandt.
Between The Wizard of Oz and high school, VanZandt mostly starred in school and church plays. When he got to Hattiesburg High School – where teacher Michael Marks had recently won the America’s Outstanding Teacher of the Performing Arts award – he became involved in several of the productions at the school.
After graduation, VanZandt studied theater for about a year and a half at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
“After that, I came back to Hattiesburg and lived in Hattiesburg for a bit, and I moved to Boston, Massachusetts and lived there for about a year and a half,” VanZandt said. “During that time, I didn’t do a whole lot of theater, but I played music – I’m a drummer and I play a little bit of guitar and other things, so I focused more on music and played in some bands.
“After (Baylor), I just did things here and there, and it’s really just been in the past 10 to 15 years that I’ve had a real resurgence, and I’ve gotten back into it a lot.”
In the mid-2000s, VanZandt found himself back in Hattiesburg and with HCLO, where his theater career took back off. Some of his roles in HCLO productions include P.T Barnum in Barnum, Willard in Footloose, Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Harold Hill in The Music Man, Huckleberry Finn in Big River, Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz and Marius in Les Miserables, among others.
He also played the roles of Reverend Oglethorpe in Smoke on the Mountain for Jones County Junior College, Cookie in Return to the Forbidden Planet for Jefferson Performing Arts Society in New Orleans, and Corny Collins in Hairspray for Command Performance Broadway Intensive. VanZandt was a member of the ensemble of Showbiz Showstoppers for the University of Southern Mississippi School of Music, and won the All-Star Cast award at the Mississippi Theater Association for his performance as Mark in Altar Boyz for Just Over the Rainbow Theater.
VanZandt is also a veteran of the Hub City Players, where he has appeared as Lonny Barnett in the regional premier of Rock of Ages and as Centipede in the regional premier of James and the Giant Peach, which was awarded the American Prize for Musical Theater Performance.
Most recently, VanZandt appeared as Man in Chair in the Southern Opera and Musical Theater Company production of The Drowsy Chaperone. As a director, he has helmed Little Shop of Horrors, Legally Blonde and Once Upon a Mattress for Purvis High School, and The Who’s Tommy for HCLO.
Earlier this month, VanZandt directed Return to the Forbidden Planet at The Thirsty Hippo in Hattiesburg. The Olivier Award-winning musical, which is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, tells the story of Captain Tempest, a spaceship pilot who is forced to make an emergency landing on the uncharted planet D’Illyria.
“I had a really great experience on Return of the Forbidden Planet,” VanZandt said. “The HCLO board really stepped up on that show big time, and there was a lot of board involvement in terms of helping with costumes, sets and publicity.
“It was just overall a really pleasant experience.”
VanZandt has also acted in several of Hattiesburg filmmaker Miles Doleac’s movies, including Hallowed Ground, Demons, The Hollow and The Dinner Party. The two developed a relationship after working on other productions like Les Miserables, and before long, VanZandt found himself cast in Doleac’s films.
“I think we’ve sort of developed this kind of Wes Anderson/Bill Murray relationship, where I keep showing up in some capacity in all of his movies,” VanZandt said. “It’s been really fun, and it’s all owing to the fact that I happened to make a friendship with him working on (previous shows).”
For his work in theater and movies, VanZandt recently won the Best Local Actor award in 2019 Best of The Pine Belt voting, beating out Doleac, Jennie Blackwell, Tammy Mansfield and Holly Wansley.
“I was flattered,” VanZandt said. “It was just a really talented crew.
“It’s based on votes of the public, and I don’t consider myself to be a very popular person. So I was a little shocked to win it, but very flattered and grateful.”
But just in case the acting career didn’t work out, VanZandt had a backup plan. In 2009, while living in New Orleans and working at Blockbuster Video, VanZandt decided to enroll in the University of New Orleans, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
“For a long time after I dropped out of Baylor, I was just working retail jobs,” VanZandt said. “I worked at Blockbuster, I worked at GameStop, and I was just a retail manager.
“So I decided that I didn’t want to work at Blockbuster for the rest of my life, and it’s a good thing I made that decision, since Blockbuster shut down about a year after that. And I was old enough at that point that I didn’t want to gamble on the theater career happening, and I’ve always been pretty good at math, so I decided to become a math teacher.”
VanZandt reached that goal about eight years ago, when he started at Purvis High School, where he teaches Algebra I and Algebra III. In addition to his math classes, he also serves as coach of the high school’s debate team.
“I really like it,” VanZandt said. “It gives me what the retail jobs never gave me, which is a sense that I’m contributing positively to the world in some way.
“It’s not always great – there are days that are frustrating, just like any profession – but for the most part I really like my job. Coaching the debate team has been fantastic as well; that’s something I did a lot in high school, so it’s fun to be able to give some of these students the same experience that I had when I was in high school.”
One of those experiences was a trip last year to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the debate team got the opportunity to compete in the Harvard Invitational Debate Tournament.
“A lot of these students that I got to take, some of them had never been out of Mississippi, and many of them had never flown before,” VanZandt said. “We got to go and compete on the campus of Harvard University, and it snowed, and we got to see a Broadway tour.
“I know for a lot of these kids, that may be the only time that they ever do anything like that. So it’s rewarding and fun to be able to give them those kinds of experiences.”
With both his acting and teaching career flourishing, VanZandt plans to continue doing both for the foreseeable future.
“On some selfish level, I enjoy (acting) – there’s something thrilling about getting to be someone other than yourself for a bit,” he said. “For me, every role I do teaches me a little something new about empathy – I start to learn to see people in a different light.
“On a bigger level, what draws me to it is that I think the arts really change people. They offer a safe place for people who may be marginalized in society at large. I know in Purvis, all the arts programs here really are a kind of haven for the kids that don’t necessarily fit in anywhere else, and so I think there’s something important and sort of magical about that.”
Photo by Lance Bowe