Into The Woods

By on 13 February, 2014 in Art, Fun, Greg Thornton with 0 Comments

You Have To Every Now And Then.”

Stephen Sondheim

“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.” 
J.R.R. Tolkien

The 2014 Season at The Cloverdale Playhouse opens today with one of the great pieces of musical theater, “Into the Woods.” The incomparable Stephen Sondheim joins his music and lyrics with a wonder-filled book by James Lapine, giving the audience an enchanted and exhilarating experience. We are truly thrilled to be presenting this award-winning musical and are even more blessed to have an amazing group of artists gracing our stage in this production. Two of the actors in this wonderful cast joined me for this discussion about theater, fairy tales, and their own particular treks into the woods.

Matthew Walter, who plays the role of Jack (among other roles) in “Into the Woods,” was part of the wonderful cast in our sold-out run of “Cabaret” last season.

Emily Lowder Wootten, who plays the Baker’s Wife, was in the very first project the Playhouse ever did — “The Sure Thing” by David Ives. She has also been part of the company of “Irish Voices” and “Southern Voices.”

Greg Thornton: Let’s talk a bit about working on a Stephen Sondheim musical. One of the things, among many things, that he does is to make a song “actable.” I think this is a rare gift. Do you find his music more engaging because of that element?

Matthew Walter: Sondheim writes with such a unique style. He allows the actor to effortlessly act and sing at the same time. There is no need to deliberate the situation that you are singing about. Sondheim does that for you. His writing approach drives the actor and helps to build an engaging atmosphere for the audience.

Emily Lowder Wootten: Without a doubt! At our very first group rehearsal, we read through the entire musical, start to finish, without singing or playing a bit of music. We read the lyrics to the songs as if they were simply lines in the script, and that is in fact what they are when you’re working with Sondheim. I walked away from that rehearsal with an entirely new appreciation and understanding of the story and the characters. The songs have not been placed in the musical simply because it was time for another song; they have a purpose. And Sondheim doesn’t just rely on words and pretty music to tell the story. He is constantly changing keys, time signatures, the use of flats, sharps, and rests to convey what the character is experiencing at that moment. So as an actor, these songs are a dream to work on! It’s hard work. It’s vocally, mentally, and emotionally challenging, but the reward is getting it right in the end. Because when it’s done correctly, it sounds marvelous!

Thornton: There are so many wonderful “tales” being told in this musical. And so many of them intersect, in places you would least expect them. Does that provide a more exciting kind of storytelling for you?

Walter: When you were young, you may have been told many “tales” that you still remember to this day, such as Jack and the Bean Stalk, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, or Cinderella. I always thought of these “tales” as independent pieces. So, to see these stories put together as a single piece of work is commendable. Sondheim merely filled in the empty spaces of each “tale” by creating his own bridges. He brought a new sense of wonder and excitement, while still holding true to “tales.”

Lowder Wootten: Yes, I love the fact that audiences will come perhaps already knowing that their favorite fairy tale characters are present in the story, but the way they meet one another in the woods is totally unexpected. It’s such an imaginative way to show that “Ever After” is a place where these people and things all reside together, and so of course they are going to cross paths at some point. But it takes it a step further and turns the whole idea of “fairy tale” on its head. All those big lessons of right and wrong being taught in the tales we grew up with, they don’t really exist. There is much more gray than there is black and white. Right and wrong are relative, and it’s a lot less easy to judge someone for their actions. And I think that’s what makes this a modern day fairy tale. Our world is moving away from the need to place everything and everyone into a perfect little box. We are pushing boundaries, redefining stereotypes, and opening our minds, so in a way we’re going “into the woods.” For me as an actor, doing this show right now matters a great deal.

Thornton: Reading myths and fairy tales, or having them read to you, are so much a part of growing up. Did you experience much of that in your early lives? Do you still?

Walter: As a young child, I was read many fairy tales. Through school I heard and read about Jack and the Bean Stalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and many more. As a child, you always hope that you will get your “happily ever after.” Now, as an educator, I read these tales every day. I still find great hope in fairy tales. They give us an escape from our troubling would, and give us hope for a better tomorrow.

Lowder Wootten: I grew up in the ’80s so, yes, I saw the Disney version of just about every fairy tale out there. And the Little Golden Books had their own special section on my bookcase. I think I dressed up like Cinderella and Snow White 1,000 times as a little girl. And I’m getting to experience it all over again with my 4-year-old and 2-year-old. I have introduced them to all the fairy tales I grew up with, and I really enjoy watching them wrap their heads around the big themes presented. There are important life lessons being taught, and they are being presented in a form that’s accessible and fun for young minds. And then it’s up to me as a parent to decide how I want to “update” the lessons a bit so that they reflect the beliefs and values my husband and I would like to impart to our children.

Thornton: I want to quote something Stephen Sondheim said about his work on this, in particular the characters that inhabit the story: “They (the characters) each have a moment to say, ‘This is what I’ve been through and this is what I’ve learned – or haven’t learned – and now, I must go on.’ That is the essence of folktales …”

As actors, does this resonate at all for you? Do you approach that moment and perhaps feel you have been changed by it? Do you find resolution in each of your stories?

Walter: Every night I go to rehearsal I think about the lesson that my characters have or have not learned. As an actor, you must understand the changes that occur over the duration of the play. Without that understanding you can’t fully connect with who you are.

When it comes to resolution in a fairy tale, can you truly find it? Resolution is something that we have to frequently find to meet our ever changing lives. In most “tales” you achieve a point where everything is resolved. You have learned your lesson, and you get to live happily ever after. But do you truly find that point? The difference between this story and others is that it continues. The audience members have the opportunity to hear what happens after “happily ever after.”

Lowder Wootten: Without giving away too much about Baker’s Wife, I will say that when she reaches her moment, she’s realizing that all the searching for “something more” in life — whether it’s a baby, affirmation from her husband, or being kissed by a Prince — isn’t at all what will make her happy. In fact, constantly searching for the “happily ever after” only makes us more unhappy. For example, once Baker’s Wife finally gets a taste of what she thinks she wants, she realizes that it’s not practical, nor is it even going to make her happy in end. She goes back and forth about the idea of having both a husband and a prince, but realizes it needs to be one or the other. Having both is chaos, and that makes for unhappiness. Even though choosing between two things can be difficult, having actually made a choice in the end is very rewarding. She chooses the Baker and the life she has made at home with him and their baby. That allows her to move on and progress as a character. She has chosen to be a wife and mother.

As an actor, I love the opportunity to sing the song in which my character has her ‘aha” moment. The song is this wonderful journey that begins in one place and ends in a completely different place. Every thought is a new realization, like little light bulbs going off in her head. It definitely keeps me on my toes the whole time!  And from a personal standpoint, I have taken to heart the idea that holding onto “the moments” in life and giving them too much power is not necessarily the way best way to live. Instead, we should, “Let the moment go … Don’t forget it for a moment, though.” Our moments are what help make us who we are, but they don’t define us. That is extremely freeing, in my opinion.

Thornton: The Playhouse space has obvious limitations. But one of its appeals is its intimacy. This production has embraced the idea that much of the story is actor-generated with a minimal amount of the scenic element to tell the story. Has that been a challenge and do you find working this way liberating, difficult, fun, all of the above?

Walter: Every play has its difficulties, but that, to me, is also its appealing part. In this play we have little to no scenic elements, and many props that are used in ways that you would not normally see them used. This means that the actors have to make the audience believe that what we are holding, whether it is there or not, is what you would expect the prop to be. It makes every moment of the play exciting and engaging for the audience and the actor. What the audience sees in their minds’ eye is likely much more elaborate than we could make as a prop.

Lowder Wootten: Everything you said! Liberating because we can’t rely on the big sets and the elaborate costumes and props to do the work for us, and therefore we are literally forced to use our imaginations. Sometimes you can be self-conscious when approaching your first few rehearsals, because you think, “What if I go too big?” There is none of that here! We were directed from day one to go as big as we wanted, and they would tell us to pull back if necessary. That’s a very exciting thing to hear as an actor!

This also means that it’s been difficult as well. The music alone is difficult enough, but when you add in the extra layers of storytelling, there is a lot we are responsible for. In any given moment, you are singing and speaking, using your body as a prop or perhaps a piece of the set, making a bird sound, becoming a flower in the woods, or building a beanstalk. There is no big scary giant, but as actors we still have to see the giant in order to allow the audience to see it. In fact, I’d love to have each member of the cast and production team draw his or her version of the giant. I think that would be so fascinating.

The combination of liberating and difficult makes for a ridiculous amount of fun. I’m so lucky I get to come do this six nights a week! My kids are going to get a very happy and creative Mama back when this is all said and done!

Thornton: I am really thrilled that you are all back for this and so pleased that you continue to be in the Playhouse family. What drew you to theater in the first place?

Walter: I think the main reason is the sense of family the Playhouse has created for me. Even during the most stressful times during a run, you are constantly comforted by your fellow actors and friends. That is, in my eyes, the meaning of community theater. Creating a community of fellow actors and friends where you can be yourself and do what you love.

Lowder Wootten: I started going to see plays and musicals from a very young age, and was hooked from the start. The arts have always made me feel complete and I find I’m a better person if I’m staying involved with the arts community in some capacity. But theater holds a really special place in my heart. I have a connection to live theater that I don’t have with other art forms. When you experience one of those magical moments with a live show, it stays with you forever. It’s electric and often life-changing in some small (or big) way. There are a few instances when I have had everything I thought I knew about the world turned upside down in two hours time. They were at the theater. They changed me and made me a better person.

Thornton: What do you hope for audiences to take away from “Into the Woods?” And do you feel the Playhouse continues to challenge its actors and continues to challenge, enhance, and entertain its audience?

Walter: Everyone will take away many different things from this play. If I could choose something that our audiences will take away it would be: “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it — and when you do, will you truly know what to do with it?”

Lowder Wootten: First, I hope they walk away from our show with a sense of community. Not just because they saw a wonderful show at a community theater, but because one of the big things I’ve learned from this story is that no one is alone. We all have someone who is on our side. Sometimes we just have to open our eyes and our hearts to see them. Most importantly, there will always be someone who is not on your side and it doesn’t make them “wrong” or “bad.” It just makes them different from you in that moment. I absolutely love when Sondheim writes “Witches can be right, giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good.”

And yes, I think the Playhouse is doing a fantastic job of choosing thought-provoking and entertaining seasons. Those two things don’t always go hand in hand.  The best type of theater is when you’ve been able to completely escape reality and immerse yourself in the story, and walk away having learned something, but not necessarily knowing what at first.

 

COMING UP AT THE PLAYHOUSE:

INTO THE WOODS   February 13-23

Thursday- Saturday 7:30 p.m. Sunday 2 p.m.

Walk-Up Wednesday Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m.

 

Playhouse School Classes Begin February 11  (Registration Still Open)

 

Joe Thomas Jr 3rd Tuesday Guitar Pull    February 18 7 p.m.

FEATURED ARTISTS:

Kelli Johnson, Giorgio Fareira, & Riley Yielding

 

Auditions for A RAISIN IN THE SUN

Tuesday and Wednesday, March 11 & 12  6-10 p.m.

 

IRISH VOICES    Saturday, March 15, 2014  7:30 p.m.

 

A RAISIN IN THE SUN  April 24-May 4

 

For tickets and further info:

334-262-1530

www.cloverdaleplayhouse.org

boxoffice@cloverdaleplayhouse.org

 

* The Joe Thomas, Jr. 3rd Tuesday Guitar Pull is made possible in part by a generous grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts*

 

*Financial assistance for Playhouse School classes and workshops is made possible thanks to a generous grant from

the Central Alabama Community Foundation.*

 

 

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