Story by Karrigan Monk '18
Graphic design by David Robbins '18
Children grow up hearing fantastical stories of royal families and the evil witches that plague their lives. Giants at the tops of beanstalks and grandmother-eating wolves run across the pages of other tales, but they are told as separate stories. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods weaves these stories together.
This fall, TheatreUNCA will bring these characters to life with their production of Into the Woods, directed by Professor of Drama Scott Walters.
“Into the Woods weaves together several fairy tales — Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk — and sends them all into the woods in pursuit of their wishes and dreams, all of which have unexpected ramifications,” Walters said. “The play is about the cost of pursuing dreams both for the pursuer and others, and also about forgiveness, love, loyalty and family.”
The musical introduces two new characters to these classic fairy tales: a baker and his wife. The couple are unable to have children and are visited by a witch who tells them she can help them if they go into the woods and bring her a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold within three nights.
The baker and his wife set out to find the witch’s demands and stumble into the other characters along the way, and encountering a myriad of challenges and mysteries.
TheatreUNCA has put a new twist on the classic musical by setting the play in an attic where pre-teen girls are playing with a Ouija board on Halloween night and summon the story into existence.
Because of this new setting, many of the props in the play are made from things easily found in an attic. Walters pointed to Jack’s cow, Milky White, being played by a white suitcase, as an example.
“The other thing I’d say is different about our production is that I really want the emotions of the play to resonate with the audience,” Walters said. “I think there are so many things in the play about parents and children, about mistakes people make in life and about the importance of caring for each other that sometimes receives less emphasis in an attempt to make the play zip along in a jolly fashion. Our production is funny, but also, if we’ve done our jobs right, there might be some tears too.”
This production of Into the Woods is the first that was decided by a committee of students and two faculty members in the Drama Department.
“We knew we wanted to do a musical this year and so that was the focus of the first meetings. We read a bunch of musicals and decided on Into the Woods,” Walters said. “We then decided to use that play as the theme for the entire year. So the first semester takes us into the woods—into the darkness to find one’s way—and the second semester brings us back out of the woods again.”
Walters said because they chose to do Into the Woods, which consists of a large cast with many costumes, they could not do another large play for the second show of the semester. The second play TheatreUNCA will put on this semester is The Sunset Limited, which only has one minimal set, wo characters and contemporary costumes to offset the production of Into the Woods.
Auditions: The Quest Begins
The audition process for Into the Woods was long and rigorous. Walters said nearly 75 students auditioned and because of that he ended up with an extremely talented cast.
“The audition process was one of the hardest I’ve experienced,” said Ryan Miller, who plays Rapunzel’s Prince. Miller said he decided to audition because he loved the musical--in fact, it was this play that inspired him to act in the first place. “Callbacks had about half the number of people. We would go in and learn choreography, songs and small scenes from the show and performed them for the creative team. It was grueling. We were all so tired and sweaty by the time auditions were over. It was intense, but so, so worth it.”
While many cast members auditioned because they simply loved the show, others had different reasons, including Emmalie Handley, who plays Cinderella’s Stepmother.
“It’s my senior year and many of my cast mates and my closest friends are either underclassman or still have time left here at UNCA,” Handley said. “I wanted a show as big and thoughtful as Into the Woods to be my farewell show for the theatre department.”
Rehearsals: Finding the Way through the Woods
After the rigorous casting process, rehearsals for Into the Woods could finally begin.
Handley said the cast has been in rehearsals nearly every weekday since Labor Day, with the first two weeks focusing on music and singing. Walters said the cast rehearses two hours a night five days a week, except on Friday when they rehearse for as long as four hours.
Although this is the first musical Walters has directed in 15 years — and it will be his last as he will be moving into phased retirement next year — he said the challenges of musicals remain the same. Walters said it is difficult to find time for each actor to learn music, choreography, staging and deepen the acting.
Benjamin Brown, who plays Jack, said he has been spending a lot of time with his character to achieve the deep level of acting Walters is looking for.
“Sondheim and Lapine’s story gives the actors so much fun to work with so finding how to show every layer of Jack has been a challenge and a joy,” Brown said. “Also, working together in a diverse community of students to make a wonderful piece of art has been a pleasure and a privilege.”
Into the Woods will be performed in UNC Asheville’s Carol Belk Theatre, which gives the show yet another unusual dimension, something Bri Stewart, who plays Little Red’s Granny, is particularly excited about.
“Carol Belk Theatre happens to be theatre in the round — audience on all sides — and it’s been really interesting to see how everything changes from proscenium style — audience on one side — to theatre in the round,” Stewart said. “It makes it a completely different show.”
Tech Week: Will the Cast Find Happily Ever After?
With tech week right around the corner, the actors are perfecting what they have worked on all semester.
“We treat it like a performance date so actors are called around 6, we run the show at 7:30 and we go ‘til that’s over,” Miller said. “Then we get notes on the run which can sometimes last for over an hour and then we do it all again the next day and the next day until we open the show.”
As opening night gets closer, Walters said he is proud of the work students have put into the musical.
“We have amazing students that I love working with. Despite carrying a heavy class load and often working jobs in addition, they bring their energy and enormous creativity to rehearsal,” Walters said. “Putting together a show is really, really hard work involving many, many people. By the end of the process we are all exhausted but there is such a sense of commitment that I am inspired almost every night.”
Into the Woods will be performed nightly Nov. 2-4 and Nov. 16-18 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 19 at 2 p.m. All performances will be held at the Carol Belk Theatre with tickets available at the door and online.