For over 20 months, many students from the University of Arizona's School of Theatre, Film and Television have been hoping, wishing and longing for their curtains to finally arise in front of an audience. Sunday, Oct. 10, was the day their wishes came true. "Into the Woods," a thrillingly mystifying story about life, love and loss made its way to the UA’s own Tornabene Theatre. With music and lyrics written by none other than Stephen Sondheim himself, UA TFTV is starting their 2021-22 season off strong with this mysterious, yet captivating musical.
In order to produce "Into the Woods," the cast and crew first had many obstacles to overcome to make the production possible. Taylor Maresca, a UA senior double majoring in music theatre and communications, was absolutely overwhelmed with excitement when cast as Cinderella in the production.
“Cinderella has always been a dream role of mine, and to be doing it now is the coolest thing ever,” Maresca said.
Maresca’s journey to wearing the glass slippers on stage wasn't an easy feat. The COVID-19 pandemic had unfortunately caused UA TFTV to stop all live performances and even some classes for the past 20 months. This year, however, the production company Arizona Repertory Theatre was given the green light to resume performances, as long as the cast, crew and audiences were masked.
Maresca and the rest of the cast of "Into the Woods" decided to come together and use their voices and actions outside of the theatre, by having the entire cast 100% vaccinated. Maresca wrote up a 10-page case on behalf of the cast in hopes to persuade the provost to allow the cast to be mask-free onstage.
“Our professors and our leadership were able to take it up to the provost and she approved it, and so we don’t have to wear masks,” Maresca said.
The show’s director and head of the Musical Theatre Division at UA TFTV, Danny Gurwin, shared the same excitement as Maresca to be back. Gurwin has recently reached a decade of teaching his expertise to his UA students after receiving his BFA in musical theatre at the University of Michigan.
When asked why he chose "Into the Woods" and what it meant to him, Gurwin said it was the first Broadway show he ever attended, “ … and I just remember thinking, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Gurwin was also fortunate enough to work with Sondheim on "A Little Night Music."
“I know what his expectations are, I feel like I can get inside his head a little bit in terms of why he wrote something the way he did,” Gurwin said.
This enabled Gurwin to work seamlessly with the production’s music director and conductor, Jamie Reed to bring the Sondheim sound to life. Reed just celebrated the start of her fourth year teaching as assistant professor of music theatre practice. She is truly the maestro of the show, as she's not only the music director but conductor and pianist. Reed took Sondheim’s original "Into the Woods" book and rearranged it into only a trio of instruments: a piano, violin and cello.
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Reed and the rest of the cast and crew were truly jumping into things with "Into the Woods," as it’s the first time for many working in “the round.” Tornabene Theatre fits this definition, as its stage is placed in the very center, with the audience surrounding the actors. The theatre has two levels with floor seating as well as balcony seating. This enables the audience to see the show from all angles and forces the actors to always be aware of their alignments to the set pieces and one another.
The show’s choreographer and UA TFTV assistant professor Christie Kerr, explained her navigation process of mapping her actors across the stage with these newfound visual challenges.
“We have to keep them moving as much as possible and changing sides and facings so someone doesn’t feel cheated that you feel like you’re staring at the back of someone the whole time,” Kerr explained. “Everything is just right out in front of you.”
Compared to a normal proscenium theatre, it’s much harder to fluidly and actively correct your stance to ensure the audience sees you properly, according to Kerr.
The set is composed of three simple steps, each of different sizes. Designed by Joe C. Klug, the simplistic appearing set was the only way the choreography could work out correctly. With each step being slightly different in shape and height, it gives actors different angles to play with and gives the lighting designers specific spots to draw the audience’s attention. The show uses many different attention-grabbing technical elements, from fog machines, strobe lights and even a puppet cow. Klug’s three-step set design in the Tornabene will be kept throughout the 2021-22 season and built on or added to respectively for each show. The Tornabene’s intimate atmosphere truly engages the audience and actors to each other in a wonderfully exciting way.
Max Murray, a theatre production major, understood the importance of engaging the audience as he made his debut in the Tornabene as the Narrator and Mysterious Man. Murray shared his excitement with everyone as his passions ignited once getting back up in front of live audiences.
“The moment you do it you’re like, 'oh, here it is, here’s the thing that I want to do,'” Murray said.
Murray went on to explain how playing two different characters in the same show almost at the same time matured his acting.
“This was the first time I ever played two fully separate characters within one show,” Murray said. “It’s just so cool to be in one role then just like get into this goblin-man kind of mindset then go back to being a normal sweater-vest wearing kind of guy.”
"Into the Woods" has been the perfect opening act for UA Theatre to present to the public, as the story collectively brings everyone together straight into the unknown. During this ongoing pandemic and in a world full of uncertainties and seemingly foggy woods all around, it’s refreshing to be reminded that truly, you are never alone.
"Into the Woods" is presented by the Arizona Repertory Theatre, the public laboratory and showcase for the School of Theatre, Film & Television’s professional training program. You can purchase tickets online at theatre.arizona.edu, or at the box office located at 1025 N. Olive Rd. The production runs until Oct. 24.
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