In stage productions of “The Wizard of Oz,” no decision is more crucial than who will take on the central characters of Dorothy and her dog Toto. That is why casting high school senior Erin Bischoff and her dog Gauge was a no-brainer when Hasbrouck Heights High School in New Jersey put on their own production of the classic tale.
Bischoff has been performing in school plays since she was in sixth grade but was never expecting to see her name listed next to the starring role in “The Wizard of Oz.” “I was more expecting like a secondary role. I was not expecting a lead. That had not happened before,” she told NJ.com.
In every school production that Bischoff has participated in, it was always understood that Gauge would be on stage beside her. The six-year-old Golden Retriever is Bischoff’s service dog and has been her constant companion since the eighth grade. “The entire school knows him. There’s not a lot of other service dogs around. He’s pretty memorable,” she says.
Bischoff is bound to a wheelchair due to osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder commonly known as “brittle bone disease.” Bischoff was only three years old when she had her first surgery to treat her condition and has suffered fractures in her limbs over 100 times in her life. Still, the 17-year-old has hardly let any of it hold her back.
“Erin was just really appropriate for the role, in so many ways,” says show director and drama club adviser Paula Jacobs. “Her tenacity in the face of adversity is such an important part of who Erin is as a person. It’s something, in combination with her sweetness and innocence, that is extremely important for someone playing the role of Dorothy.”
“The fact that Gauge was her dog as a bonus,” Jacobs added. Because Gauge has always accompanied Bischoff on stage in previous productions, he was always cast as “unnamed dog.” But this time, the Golden Retriever had his first starring role. “He actually had cues and things to do that were scripted,” Bischoff explains, adding that he had to learn when to go onstage and when to make an exit.
Though Gauge sometimes went off-script, his and Bischoff’s special bond really helped them shine in the lead roles. She told CBS Evening News, “My main thing is I really want them just to see me as anyone else is on the stage and that overall, disability should be embraced.”