Theatre Thursday

Into the Woods 

My friend Jeff Witt came to me in February and wanted me to come up with a set idea that was “outside the box” for his spring production of Into the Woods at Central High School.  I thought about it and approached him with the idea of setting the show in New York City.  My reasoning was this – we are from a small town and the big city was just as scary to these kids as the woods would be to city kids.  He was reluctant at first, and then warmed up to the idea.
The kids were a bit resistant at first too.  The production was part of a class.  The original production was to be Urinetown, but the administration shot it down 2 weeks into the semester. The director had to come up with plan B, thus Into the Woods.  The many of the kids mourned the loss of the first show the whole time and I think it effected their experience with Into the Woods.  However, I loved it!

I loved the idea of the buildings being tree like, but I wasn’t sure how to pull it off.  I decided that I would just make them as tall as possible (my tallest structure was 24 feet tall) and to use earth tones and greens for my paint color choice.  I also decided on having a bridge (because I liked the idea of “over the river and through the woods) and on building two towers that performers could stand above the rest (Rapunzel’s Tower and a tower for Cinderella’s mother).  I decided that Cinderella’s family were salon owners (inspired by that Hilary Duff Cinderella type movie) and I named it “Curl Up and Dye for kicks.  I made Jack and his mother a cardboard house and made them homeless.   And I decided that the Witch’s garden was a shopping cart and that she was homeless.  Really, the whole idea was to make the story apply to today’s world… after all, the message works today and it’s good for these kids to see the symbolism in a whole new light.

There were so many things scheduled into the auditorium that we were not able to build the set onto the stage until a week before tech.  Thus, I pulled all the flats and started painting them in tech hall. I would chalk on the design and kids, parents and friends would begin paining the designs.  I tried to use as many paint techniques as possible because I wanted to teach people more about set painting… I used sponging, glazing, scrumbling, lining, and other wet mix ideas.  We also made a roof out of broken cds for two of the skyscrapers.  That turned out great.  Sadly, I didn’t get a good picture of that effect.

The other set piece I didn’t get a picture of was the giant’s head.  I chose to make it the Statue of Liberty’s head.  Two reasons: The statue fits the setting… and I thought it was a nice subtle statement… you know, the fall of liberty since the kids were so disappointed at the senseless removal of their original show.  My friend Jeff painted it and did a fantastic job.  Too bad we never took a picture of it while it was on the set for those 30 seconds.  It is still in the air on the baton so I guess I could lower it and put a random picture here on the blog.  hmmm… things to think about.

We were able to get all the structures onto the stage and all painting finished in one week.  A miracle! Mostly to the hard work of my friend John Hatch and the Tech Class.  They all worked hard to pull off the impossible.

This was a great experiment in many respects.  This production was the first production that we have tried as a class.  The kids seemed to be not impressed.  Many felt like there was never enough time.  However, I beg to differ.  I will admit that class rehearsal seemed short on some days, but I do feel like more kids were involved with the whole production, from props and paint to sound and lights.  Usually, the majority of the kids leave it to a few kids and it often feels overwhelming.  Receiving a grade also held some people more accountable as well.  I added up all the hours and we spent just over the usual amount in actual rehearsal. I think the time really wouldn’t have been a problem if we were able to begin the process at the beginning of the semester, rather than starting over and loosing nearly three weeks of time.  I also think it helped the teacher have a little bit of a life.  It’s too bad the kids aren’t’ on board because he isn’t paid for three shows.

Since much of the concept was coming from my goofy head, and the director was busy teaching some of the most difficult musical theater music ever (and staring as Val Jean in Les Mis), I offered to come help in class everyday.  At first I was coming up with concepts and making rehearsal schedules, but then, he ask me to start the blocking.  I love directing and I love blocking so I took it on (even if the kids didn’t like me being so involved).  The truth is that it worked!  Thinking outside the box made a visually pleasing and interesting show.  These kids were able to pull off the impossible… and they learned how to be thinking actors.  I’m not a director that usually likes to dictate every little thing a person does.  I want them to think up ideas that add to their character and their blocking once I get them started.  Many of the kids truly blossomed as actors through that process.  I sure hope my friend Jeff is able to make more shows a production class in the future because I think it really added to the process.

Other ways we “modernized” the show:

The step family started out beautiful – Kardashian-like and through out the show went through plastic surgery and became uglier… so that we could see their true hearts.  We started with bigger lips and new eyebrows and ended with bigger breasts and bigger butts.  I loved that one of the girls came up with using a live dog.  It really did add to the idea that we love some things more than family… an odd theme of this little family.

The two Princes were “American” royalty, i.e. celebrities and movie stars.  Hello.  All a person needs to do is turn on the news to see what start left their old partner for a new one.  It makes sense.  The Steward was a body guard… ear piece and sunglasses and all.  My favorite moment for those guys was when I posed them walking across the “cross walk” like the Beatles in the opening scene.

The wolf was a pimp.  While I was working on the scene one day it dawned on me that he would come off more “wolf-like” (like the movies i.e. Twilight, shirtless.  Boy did it get a different reaction out of Little Red.  It was jut what the scene needed.

The Baker and his wife had a hot dog cart.

The Narrator was one of those street performers and the Mysterious Man was a homeless guy.

The birds were a street gang of homeless kids, “Angry Birds”.

The pigs were policemen and the wolf chasing them was a gangster.

Granny was a cross dresser.  He volunteered at first… then he saw his costumes.  It took learning how to do drag queen make up for him to really embrace his character.

The hen was Spanish speaking… the Harp was patterned after a singing super star.

We used a few bells and whistles too.  The Witch disappeared into the floor.  We used two fog machines to hide all the transformations.  We used a confetti cannon to simulate the leaves falling was the Giant stomped around.

I tried to get help with light design.  No takers.  I designed them myself.  We ended up with nearly 200 cues and I used all our smart lights, strobes and gobos.

Our sound system is in the process of dying.  We were able to use a computerized system from a friend.  It was a life saver.  With 24 mics our student sound operator would have been lost.  With the computerized system I was able to program who went on and off and she only needed to follow the script and push go.  It was the best sound we have ever had in the space.  My friend also helped us to get all the cordless mics in working order.

We also used the pit un-covered for this production.  I liked it.  It was the most successful orchestration because the musicians could focus on the music and a conductor could keep them with the actors.  Sadly, the kids didn’t understand.  They thought is was all for them, because they didn’t know their music well enough.  umm no.  Theater companies all over have music conductors in their pits.  Still.  I think it added good things to our show.  I hope we do it again.

This was also fun because it was one more production I got to work with my daughters.  Hannah starred as the Witch.  There are a few people who would say that she only got the part because I was helping.  Those who say that are not paying attention.  The kid is good!  She gets her parts all by herself… and for all those complainers, this was the only production she was in at the high school this year and she only had one solo in choir…. so get over yourselves.  Soap box done.  She works hard and is obsessed with doing it right… every note, every rhythm, every word.  She spends hours studying what other do and sings for hours at home.  This is why she is good.  In fact, it is time to start looking for ways to help her pay for a good college.  She is only a sophomore, but she will be competing with people with huge theater programs and private lessons up the wozoo.  Here is hoping for her.

I also got to work with so many great kids with this show.  I really learned to love them… even if they got on my nerves some times.  These really are great kids.  The actors were the most dependable, for the most part.  The tech kids in the class were a little less reliable.  It was hard to get them to take rehearsals seriously.  We had to bring in extra kids for the sound board and the follow spot and to work back stage.  In fact, the most reliable tech kids were those extra kids.  Sure love those guys!

But my favorite person to work with has got to be my friend Jeff.  I believe we compliment each other perfectly.  He says that I directed most of the show, but I disagree.  He handled all the music, including how to sing it, the costumes, the publicity and all the polishing.  All I did was the set, lights, sound, blocking and note taking… oh and keeping him organized.  I love working with him and hope to work with him for many, many more productions!

As for themes we focused on in this production of Into the Woods:

High school in only one part of the journey.

“Into the woods
without regrets
the choice is made,
the task is set.
Into the woods,
but not forgetting
why you’re on the journey”

Life is a journey.  We all do better when we learn from the choices we make, without regret.  When we move forward, remembering that we are here to learn, the journey is better.

The kids that remembered that we were there to learn from the journey of producing this play had a better experience than those that resisted the change and the choices that were made.

Personally, I do not regret one choice made in this production.

A life lesson often missed in the show is that parents really do know something and we would have been safer if we listened to their counsel and experience.

“Mother said,
Straight ahead,
Not to delay
or be misled.”

Imagine the heart ache we could avoid if we all listened to the advice of a wiser and caring parent. Poor Little Red caved to the temptation of a hot wolf.  What she learned was valuable, but could have been learned later. Like Little Red we all learn something when we cave to temptation.  The lessons we learn could have been learned so much easier if we had only listened and learned for someone wiser… just believed what they had to say.  We could have saved ourselves so much heart ache.  Alas.  Caving to temptation always leads to a path a bit scarier than we are ready to admit.

“Down a dark slimy path
Where lie secrets that I never want to know,
And when everything familiar
Seemed to disappear forever,

So we wait in the dark
Until someone sets us free,
And we’re brought into the light,
And we’re back at the start…”

In my world, I’d call that repentance… that process that brings us back to the Light of Christ after we have strayed from Him with bad choices.  But Why?  Why do we stray in the first place?

“Sometimes the things you most wish for
Are not to be touched…”

In addition, I think it is good to remember that not all parents are good parents and not all lessons are good lessons.  The trick is learning which to follow.  I mean, the Baker’s father passed down many “sins” or curses to his family.  Often we inherit the prejudices and mistakes of our fathers.  The real lesson is to break free of those traditions and to make the world a better place… even if our fathers pass down pain and hatred.

Then there are those tiny little decisions we make; those tiny lies we make in order to get the greater good… or is it?  I am learning in my life that most compromises are not for the greater good.  They are out of selfishness.  Lies, no matter what the size, always bite you in the end.

“There are rights and wrongs
and in-betweens-”

Truthfully, does anything every really “justify” our choices (or the beans).

Every choice we make effects someone else… even if we don’t think so… even it it takes years and years to see that it did effect someone.

I also think that one of the greatest lessons of the show is “misplaced expectations”.  Why do we as humans often look for something better?  Why do we always think “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence?”  A great example is the divided response to how the this show came about… how some of the kids missed the joy in this show because the old show was a better show.  Both shows are great shows.  When some of them focused on the old they missed the greatness of the current!

I find it most ironic that my own kid played me… that is, the role I always wanted to play but was never beautiful enough to pull it off, and the character I most identify with.

As a parent I always want to “make” my kids “listen”.

Why don’t they “stay a child while you can be a child”?

Why do they have to grow up and be teens… with opinions?  LOL

I know.  I was a teen once too.  I had my own opinions.  I did my share of putting my parents through hell.  But still…

It’s hard to feel judged for all your parental mistakes –
“people make mistakes,
holding to their own,
thinking alone”

But we all learn from our mistakes… even parents.

The point of a good parenting is to guide, to teach, to reach, to share.

“Look, tell him the story
of how it all happened.
Be father and mother,
you’ll know what to do…
hold him to the light…”

A lack of light leads to a lack of hope.  A parent must teach their children to love the light… to have hope… real hope.

The hardest part of being a parent is sharing what you love with your kids and them letting them fly.

“Do not let it grieve you,
No one leaves for good.”

It’s those intentions that get you… “I never thought” seems to be the issue.

Do we ever full think through what we say or do?

Taking responsibility for the choices we make it the hard part.  We too often run away from the consequences of our choices (like the Princes; like the Baker’s wife; like the Mysterious Man; like the Witch), rather than facing them and learning to love and move on despite the difficulties that come because of our choices.

I think we run from the pain of loss the most.  The Witch did.  Mysterious Man did. Maybe it’s because we are more afraid for our children more than they are afraid for themselves.  Maybe.  But,

“the further you run,
the more you feel undefined…
We disappoint,
We leave a mess,
We die but we don’t…
We disappoint
In turn, I guess.
Forget, though, we won’t.”

Even parents need to learn from their mistakes.

Truth is, no one gets through the journey of life “untained by the world.”  Everyone makes it to the end with a few battle scars.  To expect less is foolish.  The trick is not letting the journey create bitterness and anger in our hearts.  Sad the Witch didn’t learn that… at least until the end of the show.

When it comes down to it, the choice is yours!

“You decide what’s good.”

“Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
children will see
and learn.”

They are learning more than they let on.  They are more like us than they, or we, care to admit.  They are seeing.  They are doing.  They are listening… even when it seems they are not.

“Children may not obey,
But children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
to learn what to be.
Careful before you say,
‘Listen to me’
Children will listen.”

What must we teach them?

Everything comes with a cost.

“not free.”

“Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see…”

Teach them that all of their actions influence people, whether for good or bad.  The consequences of their choices can be long lasting.

Teach them that

“You can’t just act,
You have to listen.
You can’t just act,
you have to think.”

True on stage, but mostly true in life.  We are creature created to act not to be acted upon. So choose well.  Do good.

Teach them that crap happens… wolves, spells, beans… they are all part of life.  Temptation will always try to distract us from our real goals.  Life will often feel overwhelming.  Even so, we must be ready to learn… ready for the journey.

Teach them to take life one step at a time.

“But not too fast
Or what you wish
You lose at last.”

Teach them to

“Mind the past.”… to remember and learn from those that came before.

Teach them to

“Mind the future”… and to make choices that they can live with later.

Teach them to go into the world,

“Into the woods, but not to stray.”.. to stay on coarse until they reach the journey end.

Teach them to

“… see a glimmer.”  There is always light.  There is always hope.

Teach them that although we “grope” we can “cope” because of the “hope.”

Teach them

“there’s more to learn.”

“To mind…”

“To heed…”

“To honor…”

“To think…”

“To teach…”

“To join…”

Teach them

“No is alone.”

We are all in this together… as we journey to “the festival.”

I am so grateful for this experience.  Thank you Jeff for including me on this journey.  Thank you cast for allowing me to prod and to teach you.  And a special thanks to Jon Brunning and Lonnie Thurston who both took fantastic pictures that I could use in archiving my artistic endeavors.

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